Both expeditions will collect basic environmental data on the types of marine organisms that live on the seabed, the composition and chemistry of bottom sediments, and the flow of underwater currents at different depths. Knowledge of these control measures will be important in determining whether such exploitation can be carried out without destroying underwater habitat.
“Our goal is to determine how much sediment the harvester will loosen with the nodules,” says Matthias Haeckel, a marine biochemist at the GEOMAR Helmholtz Center for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany, who coordinates the environmental review of GSR’s activities for a project called MiningImpact. “It has never been done before.”
Sediment plumes can harm bottom creatures like sponges and corals that form the base of the food chain in the deep sea ecosystem. If the sand remains suspended in the water, it can also affect fish and other marine life. Haeckel and his team have around 50 different types of sensors to measure sediment both in water and on the seabed surface. This will provide the first quantitative scientific evidence on the environmental consequences of nodule mining in real mining scenarios, according to Haeckel.
“We know that the sediment plume doesn’t rise very high, only 5 or 10 meters,” he says. “Now it’s basically about understanding how well particles settle down. We want to measure the thickness of a layer and its thinning from a distance, in order to be able to determine its impact. “
DeepGreen and GSR have received exploration licenses from the International Seabed Authority, a UN-affiliated agency that controls access to the region’s mineral wealth. Neither will be allowed to start a real mining operation until the authority adopts new environmental rules and issues mining licenses. The agency has awarded 30 exploration contracts involving 22 different countries and affiliated mining companies for deep sea minerals.
Gerard Barron, founder and CEO of DeepGreen, says he’s committed to operating in an environmentally responsible manner. Barron says marine minerals are a better option than sourcing from China or from mines in politically troubled regions. “Everyone realizes that switching to electric vehicles is very greedy in metals, and the question is where are they going to come from?” said Barron. “We represent an opportunity for America to gain some independence.”
Barron says it takes 64 metric tons of rock to produce enough of the four minerals – a total of about 341 pounds – needed to make an EV battery and its wiring from a land mine. But it only takes 6 tons of polymetallic nodules from the seabed to produce the same amount, because the metals are more concentrated.
Nodules formed over millions of years as naturally occurring minerals precipitated in both seawater and sediment and formed around cores that could have been microscopic pieces of debris, rocks, bone or even pieces of other nodules. They are more common in areas where there are low levels of dissolved oxygen, and under certain geological conditions, such as in the equatorial Pacific, which contains a estimated 21 billion tonnes of them.
According to a company spokesperson, DeepGreen currently has around $ 570 million to fund mining. The company is considering sites in Texas, Quebec and Norway for a processing plant to turn the nodules into usable materials for batteries, sites close to renewable energy sources as well as markets for minerals. Barron says treating the seabed nodules would be pretty straightforward. They are first dried in a rotary kiln, which is a type of electric kiln. “This is the first step in separating the manganese from the nickel, cobalt and copper,” he says. “They form a carpet-like material for the battery-grade material, whether it’s powders or metal sulfates.”