When Henry Ford made cheap, reliable cars, people said, ‘Nah, what’s wrong with a horse?’ That was a huge bet he made, and it worked. ~Elon Musk
Metal balls found on the deep sea floor will give us a future! Speaking of the future, I just ordered my next SUV.* Yes, there is a crucial connection between deep sea metal balls and this futuristic Tesla Cybertruck.
All of our electronics and the batteries that power them are dependent on rare-earth elements. These elements are getting harder to obtain because of global politics. China controls over 95% of the terrestrial mining of these crucial metals and is positioned to dominate for years.
Maybe you heard of “blood diamonds,” aka “conflict diamonds.” How about “conflict minerals”? The Congo is at the heart of the world’s mad scramble for cheap cobalt, a mineral essential to our rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. An estimated 100,000 cobalt miners, including children, use hand tools to dig hundreds of feet underground with few safety measures.
In this issue, you’ll learn of a promising new source of rare earth minerals, how we will mine them remotely, and some of the challenges and benefits of going deep.
Vast Bed of Metal Balls Found in Deep Sea
The existence of deep sea manganese nodules has been known for decades. They were discovered by scientists trolling for deep-sea creatures. They have been found all over the world but are most prevalent in the Pacific.
The R/V Sonne, a German research ship, was several hundred miles east of Barbados when a mesh net meant to capture marine life instead brought up balls of manganese ore that were bigger than softballs. A remote camera later revealed that the seafloor was littered with these round manganese nodules, some the size of bowling balls.
Good News: This vast trove of metal balls containing rare-earth elements will open up a new source of this vital commodity. This supply will give the US a fighting chance to stay in the global game and help to reduce the devastating open-pit cobalt mining in the Congo and elsewhere.
DeepGreen is Collecting Critical Metals from the Seafloor
Metal nodules that sit three to five miles deep on the ocean floor in the Pacific Ocean contain the essential metals — nickel, copper, cobalt, and manganese. Exploration of the seafloor in international waters is administered by the International Seabed Authority (ISA) as mandated by the United Nations. DeepGreen was granted a 15-year exploration contract in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (1.7 million square miles) between Hawaii and Mexico.
So how do you “harvest” these nodules? A company called Global Sea Mineral Resources (GSR) has collected nodules using deep-sea dredges and the first tracked vehicle to reach and travel the seafloor at depths of almost 3 miles.
“When you perform a life cycle sustainability analysis (LCSA) as we have done, and you look at the dynamic and interacting systems of the whole earth — rainforests and mountains, deserts and oceans — it becomes clear that obtaining critical base metals from ocean nodules has the least impact in terms of biodiversity, carbon, ecosystem services and human communities,” said Dr. Greg Stone, Chief Ocean Scientist of DeepGreen.
Good News: DeepGreen will build a pilot plant next year to demonstrate the metallurgical process at scale to produce nickel, cobalt, and copper products with zero solid waste.
To sum up, it’s complicated. We want to eliminate reliance on fossil fuels to fight our warming climate and save the world for our children. Going all-electric from renewable resources is the goal. Still, sourcing materials for our batteries and electronic devices also has an impact on our deep sea and terrestrial environment, not to mention the human toll on miners.
The best news is that obtaining these metals from the deep ocean should have a lower impact and be a more ethical alternative to land-based mining. I have faith in the abundance of nature, our collective intelligence, creativity, and our will to survive.
Dr. Rod Murray
*Actually, I paid a $100 refundable deposit. If you are considering any Tesla, not just the Cybertruck, use my Rod’s Tesla Referral link to get 1,000 free miles — yes, I’ll get a few miles too — eventually.