About 2.5 miles (4 km) below the ocean’s surface, the deep-sea harvester surveys the ocean floor. Using a lift system, it gathers abundant polymetallic nodules and then moves them to the surface ship. The nodules contain cobalt, manganese, nickel, and copper, which makes them economically promising as a sustainable substitute for metals mined on land. This is the third of seven DeepGreen campaigns to pursue the evaluation of deep ocean metals, which will be indispensable for powering a low-carbon and high-tech economy — battery storage systems, electric vehicles, smart phones, wind turbines, and solar panels.
With diminishing supplies of key metals like cobalt, the race is on to find reliable supplies of the metals needed for a clean energy future. Tesla, Apple, and other tech companies have contracted with suppliers who currently mine on land with decreasing efficiency while also creating a negative impact to environmentally sensitive areas like the Amazon Basin.
DeepGreen and Nauru Ocean Resources, Inc. (NORI) are developing technology that will allow them to collect the polymetallic nodules lying on top of the ocean floor, bring them to the surface using state-of-the-art technology, and process them with the objective of producing zero waste. It is a unique, environmentally conscious approach. They are in the middle of a 4-year research endeavor and, based on 3 already-completed research cruises (with 4 more planned), the company believes that mining these nodules will be economically viable. They are committed to spending substantial resources to ensure their harvesting process is environmentally acceptable.
Taking nearly 2 months at sea, DeepGreen’s research vessel, the Maersk Launcher, returned to port in San Diego on Monday, June 4th, 2018. The recent program undertook detailed mapping of the seafloor using a state-of-the-art Hugin 1000 Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV), with a sensor package comprised of a multibeam echosounder, side scan sonar, sub-bottom profilers, and high-resolution camera. Box core samples provided an accurate representative sample of the seafloor used for resource, environmental baseline, and geotechnical purposes.
Why Polymetallic Nodules on the Seafloor Have Potential for CleanTech
“Metals like cobalt, copper, manganese and nickel are essential to the technologies that allow us to have iPhones, Teslas, and renewable energy like solar and wind. But these metals for our future are getting harder to find, and extracting them on land often results in deforestation. DeepGreen has developed the technology to recover these metals from the polymetallic nodules that sit on the deep ocean floor, avoiding deforestation, child labor and with minimal impact on the ocean environment.”
“We believe that we have the most environmentally sustainable and ethical solution for harvesting the metals of our future by using our minimally invasive technology to lift them from the seafloor. We are committed to being inclusive, communicative, and transparent with the scientific community throughout our research phase, to ensure that we are uncovering and addressing any and all environmental or social concerns.”
The purpose of this campaign was to select and map in detail the location of a mechanized collector test for use in a future campaign as well as to map 2 preservation reference areas. These surveys and samples will be used to inform detailed collector design, improve resource definition for production planning purposes, and form part of the environmental baseline studies.
The results produced detailed maps with up to 20 cm resolution with 2286 line km of data collected. Photo traverses confirm continuous fields with high polymetallic nodule abundance, and initial review of box core samples indicates abundances greater than previous estimates. Laboratory analysis will be conducted over the coming months as will detailed interpretation of the more than 50 terabytes of data that was collected during the campaign.
Tesla’s Emphasis on Reducing Cobalt Could Align with Seafloor Polymetallic Nodules’ Collection
A movement away from cobalt content in lithium-ion batteries has gained momentum. These metals are now principally mined on land, often in very environmentally and socially destructive ways, such as euphemistically-termed “artisanal mining” that includes child labor. Rising demand has led cobalt prices to quadruple in the past two years. Not knowing the amount of cobalt supply available has become a genuine point of concern and a bottleneck for much greater mass production of EV batteries for many electric vehicle (EV) manufacturers.
While Tesla’s cobalt usage is less than other EV manufacturers in the composition of Tesla’s battery cells, Tesla CEO Elon Musk acknowledges that current cobalt usage is around 3% and future plans are to eliminate cobalt altogether. Tesla has long been a proponent of nickel-cobalt-aluminium (NCA) batteries developed by Panasonic in Japan, which goes against the propensity of a nickel-cobalt-manganese (NCM)-focused EV industry. Panasonic, Tesla’s exclusive battery cell supplier for the Model 3 sedan, has announced that it is in the process of developing cobalt-free EV batteries. Panasonic is the world’s largest automotive lithium-ion battery manufacturer and produces the cells at the joint Gigafactory 1 in Nevada.
Benchmark forecasts that 8:1:1 cathode material will reach 25% of NCM’s market share by 2026 – “enough to cause disruption in the raw material supply chain, but far from takeover.” The analysts there add that there is little doubt that nickel’s future in lithium-ion batteries is bright.
For now, the goal with this chemistry is to develop NCM 811. Skeptics argue that this is still a number of years away from widespread commercial adoption, due to lifecycle and safety concerns. In the meantime, the push to locate stable supplies of cobalt is on.
Polymetallic Nodules As Cobalt Mining Transition
As an alternative source of cobalt and other metals, 1000s of square kilometers of the deep seafloor are covered by metal-bearing nodules. DeepGreen’s extensive scientific and resource surveys took place within part of a 75,000-square-kilometer area of the Eastern Pacific’s abyssal plain. In 2011, NORI became the first company to obtain a license from the United Nations’ International Seabed Authority to explore for minerals in the international seabed area. It will not operate near shallow coral reefs, volcanic ocean vents; it will not require digging, drilling, or use of explosives.
DeepGreen’s achievements have already drawn attention from miner and metal trader Glencore, which has contracted to buy a percentage of the nickel and copper produced from a DeepGreen processing plant. Glencore has also made an investment in DeepGreen.