The hidden cost of deep-sea mining

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admin November 25, 2021
Updated 2021/11/25 at 9:21 AM

Oceans cover almost 70% of our world, with deep water accounting for 90% of that. It is home to a diverse range of creatures, from microscopic zooplankton to the biggest whales. This combination helps to keep our planet’s ecological cycle in balance.

Other than researching aquatic ecology, it may seem that humans have no business with what occurs in the deep water. But, in truth, human greed has sunk to such depths that it has disrupted the planet’s peaceful state.

Mining companies are looking for metals that may be extracted from the seabed and used to make electric vehicle (EV) batteries. These discussions are still in their early phases, but they are progressively gaining traction.

Deep-sea mining proponents argue that minerals including cobalt, lithium, nickel, copper, vanadium, and indium are needed to make electric vehicle batteries. With the growing need for electric vehicles, demand for these minerals will increase. It will put a strain on current terrestrial mineral ores, necessitating the search for new ways to extract these minerals.

According to a study conducted by Greenpeace, a global environmental campaigning organisation, the projected increase is influenced by a number of factors, including technological advancements in battery chemistry, the ability to recycle minerals from used batteries, and investment in public transportation infrastructure.

Despite the availability and development of cobalt-free lithium-ion batteries, such as lithium-iron-phosphate batteries, many predictions presume that existing lithium-ion battery technology will continue to be used.

For example, Tesla’s electric vehicle battery doesn’t need cobalt or phosphate. In 2020, General Motors will launch a battery technology that uses 70% less cobalt than existing batteries.

Simultaneously, the vehicle industry is planning to invest in battery material recycling, reducing future mineral demand even further. According to the Institute of Sustainable Futures, battery recycling may lower lithium demand by 25%, cobalt demand by 35%, and nickel and copper consumption by 55% by 2040.

China is on top of the game, with plans to build a $5 billion recycling factory in Hubei province. Northvolt, a Swedish startup backed by Volkswagen and BMW, plans to recycle 25,000 tonnes of batteries each year. Through battery recycling, the European Commission hopes to reduce demand for lithium by 12%, cobalt by 4%, and nickel by 4%.

The modal share of nations will have a big impact on future mineral demand. The demand for EV batteries will be lower in nations where governments reduce the percentage of private motor vehicles by investing in and expanding current public transit as well as enacting car restraint laws.

Given these variables, it seems unlikely that expected mineral demand would exceed supply, necessitating the start of deep-sea mining. Even under the worst-case scenario, deep-sea mining is unlikely to replace land-based mining appreciably. The surprising effect will be that it will create market rivalry between the two, with the secondary goal of reducing mineral demand.

Damage of the environment Deep-sea mining proponents also believe that it is a greener choice than land-based mining.

These proponents, however, seem to overlook the possibly irrevocable harm that deep-sea mining might inflict on marine life. Fluid jets are the most well-tested tools for deep-sea mining that take up nodules and a 15-centimetre layer of seabed silt.

Unwanted sediments containing heavy metals are poured back into the sea, causing pollution that may choke jellyfish and other animals that transfer a considerable amount of carbon to the seabed. It’s also possible that we’ll lose species before we realise they’re gone.

We understand that both land and deep-sea mining have costs. The former is known to create serious environmental issues such as soil erosion, loss of biodiversity, and pollution, while the latter may produce catastrophic deep-sea disturbances, and much remains unknown. As a result, you may wonder which is superior. The answer is that we are still working on it.

A more fundamental concern is whether we are doing enough to optimise the need for minerals in the first place.

So, can we design cities so visits are more local in character and can be done by walking and cycling, reducing the demand for private electric cars and, as a result, EV battery requirements?

Do we have excellent electricity-based public transit, even if we need to go for greater distances? How many nations plan to recycle circulating electric batteries? Should the developed and developing worlds work together to help the Democratic Republic of Congo eliminate child labour by questioning the origins of imported goods and boycotting them if child labour is used in their production, or should we just move on to exploiting deep-sea resources in the hopes that it will help?

Before diving into the deep water, we need to find answers to these questions. We only have one planet, and we must choose between continuing with our usual method of exploring, exploiting, depleting, and repeating, or finding a more sustainable way out.

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