The future of electric cars may depend on mining critically important metals on the ocean floor.
That’s the view of the engineer leading a major European investigation into new sources of key elements. Demand is soaring for the metal cobalt – an essential ingredient in batteries and abundant in rocks on the seabed. Laurens de Jonge, who’s running the EU project, says the transition to electric cars means “we need those resources”. He was speaking during a unique set of underwater experiments designed to assess the impact of extracting rocks from the ocean floor.
In calm waters 15km off the coast of Malaga in southern Spain, a prototype mining machine was lowered to the seabed and ‘driven’ by remote control.
Cameras attached to the Apollo II machine recorded its progress and, crucially, monitored how the aluminium tracks stirred up clouds of sand and silt as they advanced.
An array of instruments was positioned nearby to measure how far these clouds were carried on the currents – the risk of seabed mining smothering marine life over a wide area is one of the biggest concerns.
What is ‘deep sea mining’?
It’s hard to visualise, but imagine opencast mining taking place at the bottom of the ocean, where huge remote-controlled machines would excavate rocks from the seabed and pump them up to the surface.
The concept has been talked about for decades, but until now it’s been thought too difficult to operate in the high-pressure, pitch-black conditions as much as 5km deep.
Now the technology is advancing to the point where dozens of government and private ventures are weighing up the potential for mines on the ocean floor.
Why would anyone bother?
The short answer: demand. The rocks of the seabed are far richer in valuable metals than those on land and there’s a growing clamour to get at them.
Billions of potato-sized rocks known as “nodules” litter the abyssal plains of the Pacific and other oceans and many are brimming with cobalt, suddenly highly sought after as the boom in the production of batteries gathers pace.
At the moment, most of the world’s cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo where for years there’ve been allegations of child labour, environmental damage and widespread corruption.
Expanding production there is not straightforward which is leading mining companies to weigh the potential advantages of cobalt on the seabed.
Laurens de Jonge, who’s in charge of the EU project, known as Blue Nodules, said: “It’s not difficult to access – you don’t have to go deep into tropical forests or deep into mines.
“It’s readily available on the seafloor, it’s almost like potato harvesting only 5km deep in the ocean.”
And he says society faces a choice: there may in future be alternative ways of making batteries for electric cars – and some manufacturers are exploring them – but current technology requires cobalt.
“If you want to make a fast change, you need cobalt quick and you need a lot of it – if you want to make a lot of batteries you need the resources to do that.”
His view is backed by a group of leading scientists at London’s Natural History Museum and other institutions.
They recently calculated that meeting the UK’s targets for electric cars by 2050 would require nearly twice the world’s current output of cobalt.