Recently, DeepGreen penned an open letter to BMW, Volvo, Google, and other brands about the importance of seafloor minerals and approached extraction cautiously with an exacting commitment to science-based impact analysis and environmental protection. I also interviewed DeepGreen’s CEO, Gerard Barron, via email last year.
Yesterday, I had the pleasure of a second interview with Gerard, this time through Zoom. In yesterday’s interview, Gerard answered a few questions I had about the open letter and he expressed his passion for helping the environment through his work of collecting deep-sea nodules filled with metals needed in the battery industry.
Q&A With Gerard Barron
JC: For those who may not know, how exactly do you collect these nodules from the seafloor? What makes DeepGreen different from any other company doing deep-sea mining?
GB: To fully understand that, you have to appreciate that the oceans are filled with three different types of metal. There are nodules, which we’re entirely focused on. And then there are these chimneys or these seafloor massive sulfides and the seafloor crusts. We’re not so supportive of these because they form an integral part of the ocean floor and require big machines to drill and crunch up big rocks, turn them into smaller rocks, and pump them to the surface. By contrast, nodules lie unattached on the seafloor like golf balls on a driving range and can be collected directly. So our job now is to find a way of collecting these with the lowest impact and the greatest efficiency.
We’ve engineered some amazing tech, but it’s worth keeping in mind that industry first became interested in nodules around 50 years ago and solved many of the technical challenges back then. Of course, a lot’s happened in 50 years. Technology has become better, more available, and more reliable.
We’re actually using a tracked vehicle with a hydraulic jet system that, with the benefit of the “Coanda effect,” allows us to gently pry the nodule from the sediment by aiming a jet of seawater across the tops of the rocks. It kind of lifts them up, if you like.
We’re only impacting the top 5 cm of the ocean floor. The way I like to frame it is that if we took a step back and took a planetary perspective and if we had our time again, it would make sense to carry out extractive industry in parts of the planet where there’s the least life. We wouldn’t naturally go to our biodiverse rainforests where there’s a lot of biomass and which serve as huge carbon sinks. We’d go to the deserts, and that’s where we are. We’re in the biggest desert on the planet, which just happens to be under 4,000 meters of water.
If we measure life in the form of biomass, there are around 13 grams of biomass per square meter. Most of that is bacteria living in the sediment. Let’s compare that with Indonesia, where most of our future nickel is coming from. As you know, car batteries have a lot of nickel in the cathodes, and while they’ve been able to engineer out cobalt, it’s not so good with nickel because of the energy density it delivers. And so, there are more than 20,000 grams of biomass in the Indonesian rainforests where we mine the nickel from now. With that perspective, I just think it makes sense to do this in the most sparsely populated area on the planet.
The beginning principle is that there is less life to impact. Of course, if you adopt the precautionary principle around biodiversity, it is prudent to set aside 30% of the area as best practice. If we think about the ocean, it’s 360 million square kilometers in size–so it’s big. There are now less than 1.2 million square kilometers under license, so we’re talking about just 0.3% under license and already there have been 1.4 million square kilometers set aside in the Clarion Clipperton Zone as protected areas. So more of this area is currently under protection than is under license. Furthermore, contractors are required to set aside additional areas for protection and leave 15% of the nodules on the seafloor.
So we’ve established there’s less life down there, and now we know that there are rigid protections in place to preserve that which is there and allow those populations impacted to recover. There’s a theory that these populations don’t come back. That’s wrong — there have been tests done off the coast of Peru almost 30 years ago where they dragged a big, nasty plow through the seafloor. Since then, scientists have revisited on a number of occasions and various studies have shown strong recovery of fauna and microbial populations in just 26 years. If we compared that to our Indonesian nickel mine, the rainforest would have been clear cut and recovery may take hundreds to thousands of years. So recovery does happen. Now, remember the planet is 4.5 billion years old. To get that recovery rate in less than 30 years is pretty good. That’s how I frame that.
JC: In the open letter, DeepGreen mentioned that brands that chose not to consider alternative mineral supplies would be complicit in increased deforestation. I agree with that statement, but can you elaborate more on this and explain how DeepGreen is able to solve this without hurting the environment?
GB: Well, we should also acknowledge that there is no perfect solution, but we feel that nodules offer the best option available to us, and can dramatically reduce the heavy costs to both planet and people from sourcing these metals. What we can do through our environmental studies — we’ve committed $75 million on just our environmental impact assessment alone — is to understand what it is we’re impacting, firstly. Secondly is to understand how we can mitigate those impacts and to then say, ‘well how do they compare against the known impacts?’
I think that’s what is really so interesting — it’s got me so passionate about this industry — this opportunity. We all know about the externalities of fossil fuels, right? Global warming being the main one. But we haven’t given the same level of attention to metals. What’s the true cost of metal production? And what’s the impact of increased metal production? Metal production has to grow significantly if we are going to be able to build all the batteries needed to wean ourselves off fossil fuels. There’s no other way around it — the numbers just don’t add up.
Recycling will make an impact in the future but it won’t solve the problem. If you and I buy an EV today, the battery will get recycled for sure in 10 years, but where do the battery materials come from today and tomorrow — for the next 10 years? There are more than a billion light vehicles to electrify and then there’s heavy transport. Then there’s ships and homes and grids and everything else.
The metal intensity — this is why people are calling it a super cycle. The last supercycle was started by China’s industrialization and more is on the way — and now we have this whole new demand. Just to put it in context, you asked a specific question about how we can reduce it. So, firstly, there’s less area to impact. You have to carry out a very thorough life cycle analysis and that doesn’t mean just the mining impacts or just the processing impacts where we turn them into metals. It also includes ‘where did you get them from?’
If you pick them up off the desert floor, that’s one thing, but if you’ve had to mow down very biodiverse, carbon-rich rainforest — and even worse, you’ve had to build coal-fired power plants to generate the energy to do this (which is sadly all too common) — and then you generated these horrible toxic tailings, all of these things add up to environmental disaster.
Another thing is after being badgered by many people, I watched Seaspiracy the other day — not knowing what I was about to see. It’s a fishing documentary on Netflix. [Note, I mentioned that I’ve never seen it before.] It’s pretty horrible, I warn you, but it’s pretty nasty about NGOs as well. It’s basically just a focus on the fishing industry.
Now, what I want to say is that I’ve got 150,000 square kilometers of the ocean floor where we’ve identified 1.6 billion tons of these [nodules] and that’s enough to build 280 million mid-sized electric vehicle batteries. It’s going to take us 30 years — collecting nodules from that amount of seafloor divided over three decades means we’re not impacting much seafloor every year. Every year, the fishing industry destroys 5 million square kilometers of coastal seafloor — the most productive parts of our oceans — through dredging and trawling alone.
It makes me wonder what are we talking about here. I’m talking about 150,000 square kilometers divided by 30 years — that’s how much we’re using every year. Yet every year the fishing industry is destroying 5 million square kilometers of very productive seafloor area — and that’s where carbon is stored. I sometimes hear the environmental groups say that the deep ocean has lots of sequestered carbon. Yes, but it’s in the sediment and the sediment will stay on the seafloor because at depths of three miles, there is no known mechanism for it to reach the surface.
Based on our own test data, the sediment that we do disturb will settle pretty quickly. So that’s another area of our very heavy investment in environmental work. It’s to understand what’s the impact of that sediment and how far does it travel. What we’re finding — which has been found by others — is that the particles tend to flocculate together. They bind together and they become heavier and they settle very quickly.
[I interjected here and noted that they kind of brush it aside and it resettles.]
Yeah, that’s right — exactly. Our studies and the studies of others — I know MIT has two papers on this very topic — on the plume — I think it’s a total nonissue mainly because of how the particles tend to behave at that level. You’ve probably seen on our website — you’ve mentioned them in one of your articles — those boxcores. We drop them off the side of the boat attached to a cable. And when they hit the bottom of the seafloor, they’re like a turf cutter. Pistons go off. It’s quite violent. We cut a square meter piece of the ocean floor out so we can study the organisms and weigh the abundance of nodules. But we always have cameras on them and you can see. There’s a lot of dust but you get full visibility in around 23 seconds.
I was in a submersible off the coast of Seattle the year before last and the sediment there was so fine. We’re only like 100 meters below, but the sediment was so fine that you couldn’t see. You could only see by turning your thrusters on. It just stayed there. That’s not the case in the deep oceans.
That’s the purpose of our science. That’s why we’re out there spending the money — so we can hopefully put an end to these myths.
JC: In the open letter, DeepGreen brought up battery recycling. That’s been a topic I’ve been interested in — especially on the awareness front. The average consumer doesn’t stop to think about what powers their appliances or devices — much less their car. What do you suggest would be a great way to raise awareness about the importance of battery recycling? Even if, as you said, it’s going to make a partial impact, the more people that know about it, I think would be better.
GB: I agree entirely and I think you’ve just answered it: awareness. And I think when people become aware of the heavy environmental and social cost of land-based mining, then they’ll get behind us. And then you’ve got companies like us saying that we need to stop extractive industries. We need to stop — full stop. But we also need to move to a circular economy. We think of it as atoms as a service. I come from the software as a service (SaaS) industry and the way we think of this is to produce our metal atoms then rent them out to our customers because we want them back.
Instead of processing virgin nodules, we want to process batteries — black matter. I think what will happen here is that consumers like you and I will say, ‘no, I don’t want to buy stuff that was not made from recycled material.’ Today that’s not an option except in plastics, to some degree, but when it comes to battery metals, it’s not yet an option. Aluminum is pretty well recycled but nickel isn’t because most of the nickel that is mined is in steel — buildings all around us. Batteries are a new use case, really.
That’s what I believe. I think we absolutely have to drive towards ending extractive industry for good. This is what confuses me. Some of the language coming out of the NGOs is very, very aligned with us, but some of it is not as well. We believe in circular. We believe that we need to reduce demand by more ridesharing, better fleet utilization, and so on, but they’re turning a blind eye to the reality of where these metals are coming from today. They just won’t address it for some reason.
It’s like they are ignoring what the biggest threat is and that’s global warming and CO2 emissions.
JC: DeepGreen called for brands such as BMW and Volvo needing to own the impacts of their growing battery supply chains and mentioned they could help the brand walk them through the ESG data. How could you do this for these brands?
GB: Well, firstly, I’d say, ‘let’s think about what your current and future metal consumption is likely to be.’ And then, ‘how much visibility do you have as to where this is going to come from?’ We’ve already done the analysis. Last year, the Journal of Cleaner Production published a white paper that we commissioned on the comparative climate impacts of battery metals.
So I’d start with the fact base to say that you can only fully appreciate it if you look at the full impact of terrestrial metal production. This is our dataset. We have a white paper reviewed by Yale University and we have all these papers coming out published in the Journal of Cleaner Production and so on. And then I’d say that, of course, there are some impacts in collecting in the ocean, but let’s understand the environment and then let’s understand the impacts. Then let’s understand how we can mitigate those impacts, and then what about governance? How are we going to make sure that we are a safe operator?
I get why people are anxious about mining. But when you think about it, we’re not mining. We’re collecting these off the ocean floor, and yet we get bundled into mining. The land-based mining industry is horrible, as is the thought of transferring that into the oceans. I understand why people are going ‘that’s horrible,’ but that’s why you’ve gotta do the work. You’ve just gotta understand that they are different environments. We pick these up off the ocean floors. We don’t generate any toxic tailings. We don’t generate any solid processing waste. We don’t destroy carbon sinks. We can ship them to our onshore processing plants that use renewable power.
Nodules bring numerous benefits, so what I would be asking BMW or the others that took that stance (referencing the open letter written by DeepGreen to these brands) is let’s look at the facts and the dataset. If you want to challenge anything in our dataset, go for it. If you have an alternative that I don’t know about, tell me, and maybe we can get behind it.
On Collecting Nodules Off The Seafloor & More
GB: It’s such a unique resource how they just sit there on the ocean floor. And they just happen to have all the materials needed to build the battery and technologies necessary to combat climate change — they’re not full of gold or silver. We don’t need more gold, let’s face it. There’s enough gold. It’s a stored value material.
JC: When you sent me my little nodule for my collection, I thought that was the coolest thing. At first, it was on the bottom of the ocean but now it’s here in my home.
GB: Every airport security that I go through — and I go through a lot — the nodules come up bright blue when you put them through the scanner (X-RAY)! This is encouraging because metal comes up blue in those airport scanners. So these come up like a rich blue and they’re like, ‘okay what’s this?’
There was actually another final question but this information will be provided in a follow-up piece to this interview. DeepGreen, which will soon go public as The Metals Company on NASDAQ, has a lot of exciting things happening and we’ve been given a glimpse to share soon so stay tuned.
Graphics designed by Johnna Crider with photos provided by DeepGreen and used with permission.