Deep Dive: Deep Sea Mining
Deep sea mining made a big splash in July. Here’s everything you need to know about it. If you’re working in mining for battery metals, I’d love to chat!
🌊 What is deep sea mining?
In the depths of our oceans, a nascent industry stirs: deep sea mining, poised at the nexus of promise and controversy. This underwater quest is driven by a thirst for rare metals, pivotal for the batteries powering electric vehicles and renewable energy, keystones in our global pivot towards a climate-friendly future. Yet, as demand surges, so do apprehensions.
Deep sea mining was initially conceptualized in the 1960s following the discovery of polymetallic nodules on the ocean floor (first discovered in 1873 with the HMS Challenger). However, technical challenges and the lack of a comprehensive legal framework made it impossible to work on.
I have invested my time and efforts in learning more about this frontier where sustainability clashes with environmental stewardship, as the potentially irreversible damage to delicate marine ecosystems is weighed against our planet's energy evolution.
We recently ran a poll in our latest article to see what you all thought and looks like everyone was surprisingly even out of the 847 poll participants. Shows there are a lot of mixed thoughts when it comes to this topic.
A bit about polymetallic nodules
Polymetallic nodules are critical components in the push towards sustainable energy solutions. These potato-sized lumps, scattered across expanses of the ocean floor, are rich in essential minerals like nickel, cobalt, copper, and manganese. These elements play pivotal roles in batteries, especially those used in electric vehicles and renewable energy storage systems.
The Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), a region of the Pacific Ocean floor stretching between Hawaii and Mexico, has emerged as a focal point for those in deep-sea mining due to its abundant reserves of polymetallic nodules. Spanning an area roughly the size of the United States, this deep-sea region is carpeted with billions of these nodules.
🛠️ What problem is this solving?
Battery-critical metal mining is difficult, and geopolitical intricacies emerge. As of now, a staggering 70% (approximately 130,000 tons annually) of global cobalt production comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). This central African nation, riddled with political volatility, has drawn global scrutiny for its ethically fraught mining practices, including documented child labour.
Beyond these ethical concerns, the global balance of cobalt production highlights a geopolitical vulnerability. Less than 10% of cobalt is produced in Western countries (1% USA, 3% Canada, 4% Australia). In the race to reduce this dependency, alternative sources, like the deep sea, have gained traction.
🌱 Yet, the promise of the ocean's depths has come under the microscope due to environmental concerns.
Biodiversity. Loss of underwater species - some of which we have yet to discover- from the (potentially irreversible) destruction of habitats, and disturbance of abyssal ecosystems due to sediment plumes, noise, and light pollution.
Climate. The ocean serves as a colossal carbon sink, silently mitigating the impacts of climate change by storing carbon in oceanic soils. Disturbing this risks releasing stored carbon back into the atmosphere. Further, deep sea mining has the potential to chemically alter ocean systems and compromise their ability to act as carbon sinks.
Unknown unknowns. Perhaps the most disconcerting aspect is what we don't know. Our knowledge of deep-sea ecosystems is cursory at best, making it impossible to predict the full extent of the impact of mining activities.
For these reasons, many companies have formed a moratorium declaring no interest in purchasing metals from the deep sea until it can be deemed environmentally safe.
⛏️ How deep-sea mining is done
Deep-sea mining, particularly when using dredging methods, aims to extract valuable minerals from the ocean floor. Dredging involves the use of specialized ships equipped with remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) or autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs).
These underwater machines are designed to traverse the deep-sea terrain, vacuuming up sediment from the seabed. This sediment contains valuable nodules rich in metals like manganese, nickel, cobalt, and rare earth elements.
Once the sediments are dredged, they are lifted to the surface, often using a series of pumps and riser pipes.
Onboard the ship, the sediments undergo an initial separation process where water is removed and returned to the ocean, while the mineral-rich nodules are retained for further processing.
While the process may sound straightforward, the technical challenges of operating in extreme depths, coupled with concerns about environmental impacts such as habitat disruption and sediment plumes, make deep-sea dredging a topic of ongoing debate and research.
Main companies active in this space:
Impossible Metals is developing fleets of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) to selectively harvest polymetallic nodules, with offtake LoIs from major companies including 6K Energy. The company plans to deploy fleets of AUVs by 2026. “The novel AUV uses advanced robotics, AI, and a patent-pending buoyancy engine to glide above the seabed, accurately identifying nodules while minimizing disruption to habitat function and native biodiversity. These same AUVs will transport the collected nodules to the surface without discharge sediment plumes.” (Businesswire). Link to a recent webinar.
The Metals Company (formerly DeepGreen Metals) - Plans to begin mining by 2025 using nodule collectors (Vimeo link) in the NORI-D Area in the CCZ. The company has faced criticism for their environmental practices, with disconcerting footage revealing waste dumping back into the ocean.
Global Sea Mineral Resources (GSR) is a subsidiary of the Belgian company DEME Group. They have a “Patania II” nodule collector.
UK Seabed Resources - A subsidiary of Lockheed Martin, they have licenses to explore polymetallic nodules in the Pacific Ocean. Recently acquired by Norway’s Loke Marine Minerals (March 2023), Loke will become one of the largest license holders in the CCZ. They hold 2 exploration licences in the CCZ and plan to begin mining by 2030.
Nautilus Minerals was the first company to gain a deep-sea exploration license and aimed to extract copper and gold from the sea floor back in the mid-2000s. They had a 250-tonne mammoth digger to deploy. They are no longer trading.
Blue Ocean Minerals
Japan Oil, Gas, and Metals National Corporation (JOGMEC)
Here is a complete list of companies with an interest in deep-sea mining (Save The High Seas, 2017)
These companies have not escaped the discerning eyes of environmental advocates (I mean look at some of them… they’re huge!), contending that our understanding of the deep-sea ecosystem remains rudimentary, warning of potentially irreversible harm to marine life and broader ecological systems.
🌊 How do we know this is a real problem worth solving?
Poor existing ethics in the mining industry. The technologies promising a greener future rely on materials sourced under ethically troubling conditions. As the energy transition gains momentum, we must reevaluate not just our energy sources but the ethics of their components.
Booming battery market. The battery industry is exploding and the demand for certain metals is undoubted. I remember a 2023 talk from Grace Busse (Stanford University) talking about how cobalt and nickel are irreplaceable components. Cobalt, for example, is significantly more stable and possesses a higher voltage than nickel. While alternative chemistries like LFP and Na-ion are in development, nickel and cobalt remain indispensable in the short-to-medium term for high-energy applications.
Large untapped supply. The seabed presents a largely untapped reservoir for sourcing these essential metals. Deep-sea mining, if conducted responsibly, could offer a more ethical and more abundant source of materials.
Removing the dependence on non-Western supply of critical metals. The supply chain for these essential metals stretches across the globe, reliant on non-Western countries which exposes Western economies to supply chain risks, including the volatility of diplomatic relations and potential trade barriers. A secure and stable supply chain for their constituent metals becomes a matter of national security. US IRA credits can serve as powerful financial incentives for companies to explore and develop domestic sources of nickel and cobalt.
🌊 Who’s working on it in universities?
Academics and institutions are actively working on various aspects of underwater autonomous robotics, computational fluid dynamics for plumes, and LCA calculations.
MIT: Professor Thomas Peacock is working on fluid dynamics simulations to study how deep-sea mining could affect surrounding ecosystems (Scientific American). Professor John J. Leonard is studying navigation and mapping for autonomous robots operating in underwater and terrestrial environments.
Norwegian University of Science and Technology: A broad team of experts investigating everything from autonomous exploration, vertical transportation, and environmental impact.
National Oceanography Centre (UK):
Southampton: Prof Jon Copley is studying water and dynamic flows with mining, and the linkages between the water, sediment surface and sub sediments, evaluating the natural cycling of nutrients and metals that is important to maintain ecosystem health.
Harvard: Researchers working on robotic soft grippers to mitigate environmental impact/damage.
Japan: Researchers studied the impacts on immobile organisms and mobile marine animals in Japanese waters in and out of deposition areas.
A paper published in Nature in 2016 found that a given square metre of ccz supports between one and two living organisms, weighing a couple of grams at most. A square metre of Indonesian rainforest, by contrast, contains about 30,000 grams of plant biomass alone, and plenty more if you weigh up primates, birds, reptiles and insects too.
Around 13 kilograms of biomass would be lost for every tonne of ccz nickel mined. Each tonne mined on Sulawesi would destroy around 450kg of plants alone—plus an unknown amount of animal biomass, too.
The nodules contain much higher concentrations of metal than deposits on land, which means less energy is required to process them. Peter Tom Jones, the director of the ku Leuven Institute for Sustainable Metals and Materials, in Belgium, reckons that processing the nodules into useful metals will produce about 40% fewer greenhouse-gas emissions than those from terrestrial ore.
💬 Battery Chats: Oliver Gunasekara, Co-founder/CEO at Impossible Metals
Nicholas: Tell me about your background and what experiences really made you interested in deep sea mining.
Oliver: I went to school in the UK, did electrical engineering and was fortunate in my career to join a successful startup called Arm. I joined when it was about 60 people and had an amazing experience with a company that grew rapidly and went public. I got to live and work in Japan. After 10 years, I ended up running corporate development for that company, where we invested and acquired different startups. Arm was now a few thousand people and I started to get the bug to go back to a smaller company. I left and joined a portfolio company that was acquired and then worked at a few others. As part of that move to work on corporate development, I relocated from England to the San Francisco Bay area.
In 2012, I founded my own startup that was in the video compression space for live streams. We won business with Amazon and Twitch and ultimately exited in 2019. Come 2020, I was thinking of what to do, was going to go travelling and then the pandemic happened and we had bad wildfires and I became increasingly concerned about the climate, started researching and came to the conclusion that we've got to electrify everything. Electrification needs metals, and metals need mining, and we have real problems with the existing supply chain. On the seabed were these nodules, and yet people are using 50-year-old technologies. The idea was, could we invent newer technology that would be less expensive, less disruptive, and would provide these metals we need to move away from fossil fuels?
N: One question that comes to mind is why not think about better and different types of mining or processing on land? Why go straight to the ocean and how do you see deep sea mining evolving in the next decade?
O: When you dig into mining on land, it's an ancient industry and most of it is overseas with real challenges. You talk about nickel - most of the world's reserve on land is in laterite ores in Indonesia, but it's a rainforest. You have to destroy the rainforest to get it and the difficulty of finding new resources on land is very high. All the local high-grade easy minerals are already gone. You now have to go to more exotic locations and deeper mines, and that involves more environmental damage and more cost. My belief is we will never hit net zero without seabed minerals. There may be enough material on land, but it will not be economical and it will be incredibly environmentally disruptive. It averages now 16 years to permit a new mineral resource because everybody objects, everybody files lawsuits, and nobody wants a mine or its infrastructure in the backyard. I don't think we can solve this climate crisis with business as usual, which is terrestrial mining. We have to go to the ocean, which is why I created the Impossible Metals.
N: You mentioned nickel and there is also cobalt which is of high interest. Are there any other metals that are interesting to Impossible Metals?
O: There's a large number of the periodic table in these nodules. The highest-value metals are nickel and cobalt, but there's a significant amount of copper and manganese. There are also some rare earths in the nodules. That’s very attractive that you have multiple metals, not just one. It really helps the unit economics. A new mineral deposit by definition is going to be remote and low grade and potentially very deep as well. You're going to have to build a lot of infrastructure, a train line, a highway, you know, a village, a power plant. All of that adds cost, adds permitting risk, and delays the project. In the ocean, we reuse ships and ports. We don't have to build any new infrastructure. And we know for a fact nobody lives in the deep ocean.
N: What is Impossible Metals doing differently from everyone else?
O: We're reinventing this industry. When I first discovered the dredging technology and started to research, I was horrified to learn that it was first tested in the 1970s. The concept of a big collector dredging machine that injects water into the seabed and then vacuums up everything over a riser pump system to the support ship - that was tested by multiple companies in the 70s and it fundamentally hasn't changed. We took a blank sheet of paper and broke the problem into three components. Firstly, how do you physically pick up these rocks off the seabed? The second component is the vertical transport. How do you take them from up to four miles deep to the ship that's on the surface of the ocean? Then the third is how to get them from the middle of the ocean to a port and we reinvented all of that we iterated with many different architectures.
We considered the riser pump that everyone else is doing but also considered lift bags, we considered using a crane. We considered using a ballast and drop weights, many different architectures, but ultimately we ended up with the one that we have now built: a fully autonomous underwater vehicle that has its own battery pack, it has its own payload, has robotic arms, and it descends autonomously to the ocean floor. It hovers, never lands, and uses its computer vision and AI to look at all of the nodules. It looks for megafauna life that we can see with the cameras. Whenever we detect that, we leave it behind. Selective harvesting. Once it's harvested the full amount of its payload, it uses its battery pack and buoyancy engine to float to the surface, where on the surface it is now recovered with an automated crane.
The payload is emptied. The battery is recharged, any maintenance is performed, and three hours later the vehicle can be redeployed. Crucially, we don't have to do a ship-to-ship transfer. With the dredging machines, you need a dedicated support ship with differential positioning to keep the ship very stable and the riser pump system. We avoid all of that. We reuse a shipping container vessel that we've retrofitted with our own LARS (Launch and Recovery System), and if we were operating in the CCZ, every 10 days a new shipping container would come by with fresh energy and empty containers. And the existing one would go back to port and our vehicles will stay on station so we avoid the ship-to-ship transfer. We avoid the riser pump with its massive energy and a huge amount of noise. We avoid the dredging machine with all of its sediment plumes and biodiversity loss. We filed over seven patents on it. We think it's unique and we've proven it at shallow depth, and hope to prove it at real nodule depth by the year.
N: A lot of attention has been on the CCZ, but is there anywhere else of interest in the near future that is for deep sea mining?
O: These nodules are found and they are regulated differently. The CCZ is in international waters so it's regulated by the International Seabed Authority, 167 member states plus the EU, and it is very political. They just announced a roadmap. They've been working for eight years on their mining production regulations. They're on the fourth draft, and they've said that they're going to get that done next year. But there's always a risk, given that the politics could get delayed further or even to a stop.
The other two major geographies that we're very active in are the Cook Islands, a long way south of Hawaii. A small nation but a huge exclusive economic zone with massive quantities of polymetallic nodules and they've already issued free exploration permits. And then the third area is the US itself, a country with the biggest exclusive economic zone with nodules both on the Blake Plateau and around in the Pacific Ocean. We're working on all three. Our strategy is to partner with people who have the permits: we bring the tech, they bring the permit.
N: Can you provide numbers so we can visualize things like how long are these things underwater? How much are they bringing back up? How big is the battery?
O: We have different-sized vehicles - the ones that we have built and are building now are proof-of-concepts that are not large enough to be used in production, but that's what we would build next. This is public data that we published on our economic model on our website. This is a full-size production system, producing up to 6 million metric tons of nodules a year.
We would need 4 shipping container vessels. Assuming we were operating in the CCZ, we would have something like a 10-day travel time to get there and be filled. And we would use 128 robots. Each one of these robots has a 25 metric-tonne payload, like one shipping container. Each one of these vehicles can be deployed every 3.5 hours. Each one of these robots has 58 arms.
If you do the maths of 128 robots of 25 tons every 3.5, you can do seven or more missions a day. You're getting 20,000 dry tons per day. Each one of these robots costs about $5 million. That's a lot of money but it would be amortised over 20 or 25 years with maintenance, a bit like a modern 747 plane. You would need a significant amount of CapEx for this scale, but you can start with a much smaller system. With just 22 of these and two vessels, you can be profitable, but your rate of production is much less. This is how we break out the cost of each of the AUVs, and this is how we break down that 3.5 hours. The vast majority of it is moving up and down 44 minutes and you have 19 minutes of collection.
N: Has the ore grade down in all these places you mentioned, so CCZ and the Cook Islands and the US, have they all been characterized and is there good data on composition?
O: We've had almost 50 years of studying this resource and as a condition of having an expiration permit, you have to do exactly that. The typical mechanism that's used is where you drop this box over the side of the boat and it picks up about a meter square of material, brings it back up, and then you analyze the nodules to figure out the composition. What we know is that although the composition does vary by major location, they're all very uniform.
N: How much mass are they picking up in a single action?
O: 200 grams. They're actually pretty light because they're very porous. The wet weight is about 30% heavier than the dry weight. So it's like plucking these off of the seabed. We designed our robotic arm, like an arm you would see in a factory that was moving some equipment and it's designed for speed. It's designed for relatively lightweight but very fast operations. That's not what you normally find subsea. Subsea might be oil and gas or marine science, and they typically want something that can do slow but very strong lots of torque.
N: How do you weigh the environmental implications of the impacts of mining in the deep sea?
O: It depends on what type of mining you're doing. If you're doing dredging, then you're indiscriminately removing all biodiversity and biomass, you're generating sediment plumes, and you're generating lots of noise. If you have a vehicle that hovers and selectively picks up, and it doesn't generate a sediment plume because it doesn't land and it doesn't generate noise in the water column because you have big riser pumps, it's completely different. So that's why when people say we want to ban seabed mining, it's like saying we want to ban mining in Canada. It's, crazy. You need to specify what you don't want to happen and say against that, but not a location because you can use lots of innovation to change now compared to what happens today in Indonesia or the Congo.
Deep sea mining is better because it's horrifying what happens today. Picture a mine in Indonesia, you have rainforests. All of that biodiversity, biomass, and carbon sink has been destroyed. Then you have all the emissions, human rights violations, mining deaths and injuries, child labour, toxic waste that has to be disposed of, and people forced off their land. People don't realize that if you say no to seabed mining, you're saying yes to this. That is the argument and we are in a climate crisis. So we cannot do nothing.
N: There's a lot of unknown unknowns that I sometimes worry about. You mentioned noise, vibration and sediment plumes. One thing I was also thinking about is light, because you will need light for your computer vision systems, and a lot of these creatures have never seen light before.
O: If you watch our animation, our lights are off until they get to the seabed floor. And you're right, we do need light. But we're talking about an environment that is much closer to a desert. If you were to measure biomass per square kilometre, it would be about the same as a desert compared to a rainforest. So it seems to me that we should be going to places that have the least amount of biomass, not the most.
There could be some impact from the light. In the CCZ, every few per cent of nodules have megafauna on. They all have bacterial life, so we will have our lights off until they're absolutely needed. If we can do more marine science, it's possible that we could use a wavelength of light that has the least impact. But you are comparing a rainforest to a desert, and it is a desert that has very unique life forms. It is very unusual and very unique and it varies from one location to another. That's why selective harvesting is so critical. There could be a cure for cancer in the bacteria that live on the seabed floor. The beauty of our approach is we won't destroy it all because we will only take some of the material, not all.
N: I'm curious how Impossible Metals, other deep sea mining companies, and investors react to the moratorium for companies saying that they won't use metals from the deep sea. Then more broadly, what's your reaction to deep sea mining regulation talks in general?
O: Most companies that have signed the moratorium have said they will not consider taking these resources until the regulations are in place, which is consistent. We also have no intention of mining without the regulations. We need a legal framework that defines who has ownership and who regulates. Given the huge demand for these medals, I don't see that being a problem.
I wrote a blog post on Greenpeace and compared what they're doing with deep sea mining versus with nuclear power where they were against all innovation and investment in nuclear power. We completely reject the call for more moratorium because that would stop all the science work. It's all the deep sea mining companies that are funding the scientific work, and we don't think you should ban a location… You should ban what you don't like and allow companies like ours to innovate.
In our view, it's inevitable, because no matter what happens at the ISA, you have nation-states making their own rules. Who's to tell the Cook Islands they cannot unlock their mineral wealth to help protect themselves against climate change? Is that a fair thing for someone here in America to say to them? They need to make their own decisions about what they will do.
📚 Additional reading
Sustainability by numbers: Is cobalt the 'blood diamond of electric cars'? What can be done about it?
Robohub Podcast: Deep Sea Mining, with Benjamin Pietro Filardo
The Interchange: Could Deep Sea Mining Solve Our Critical Metals Dilemma?
World Ocean Review: Manganese Nodules
Wendover: The Broken Economics of the Oceans
Yale School of the Environment: Can We Mine the World’s Deep Ocean Without Destroying It?
🌞 Thanks for reading!
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