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.
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.
Who decides if it goes ahead?
Mining in territorial waters can be approved by an individual government.
That happened a decade ago when Papua New Guinea gave the go-ahead to a Canadian company, Nautilus Minerals, to mine gold and copper from hydrothermal vents in the Bismarck Sea.
Since then the project has been repeatedly delayed as the company ran short of funds and the prime minister of PNG called for a 10-year moratorium on deep sea mining.
A Nautilus Minerals representative has told me that the company is being restructured and that they remain hopeful of starting to mine.
It has issued licences for exploration and is due next year to publish the rules that would govern future mining.