A modern Eldorado: deep sea mining at the Clarion Clipperton Zone

Deep on the seafloor in a section of the Pacific Ocean, companies have started harvesting polymetallic nodules in the hope of diversifying the global supply of niche metals. Ross Davies asks, is deep sea mining set to become a reality?

For those pinning their hopes on the future of deep sea mining, the Clarion Clipperton Zone (CCZ) is a modern-day El Dorado.

Lying between Hawaii and Mexico, and spanning some 1.7 million square miles – that’s bigger than India’s total land area – the seabed in this area of the Pacific Ocean is believed to be home to billions of dollars’ worth of nickel, cobalt and rare earth metals.

That’s what exploration players, who have tied their colours to the deep sea mining mast, are betting on. One such group is GSR (Global Sea Mineral Resources), a subsidiary of Belgium’s DEME Group, which in 2013 signed a 15-year contract with the International Seabed Authority (ISA) to prospect for ‘polymetallic nodules’ in the CCZ.

Having secured exclusive exploration rights in the zone, in 2017 GSR trialled the Patania I, the first ever tracked soil-testing device to crawl along an ocean bed at a depth of 4,500 metres. This was done with the purpose of collecting soil performance data needed in the development of dredging technology.

Caterpillars and cables: The Patania II deep sea nodule collector

At the end of last year, the group unveiled the Patania II, a deep sea nodule collector designed to comb the sea floor for polymetallic nodules. The launch overlapped with the start of a new scientific study initiated through JPI Oceans, a four-year intergovernmental initiative aimed at enabling cooperation in marine and maritime research.

According to GSR, the trialling of Patania II – named after the world’s fastest caterpillar – will assist in providing a clearer, scientific picture of the environmental aspects of the seafloor minerals industry.

However, things haven’t gone quite to plan. In March it was revealed that Patania II’s launch had been postponed due to damage to its umbilical – a critical, 5km-long cable that powers and connects the collector to its surface support vessel. As of early June, no new launch schedule has been confirmed, Peter Ogden, a GSR spokesperson confirmed to MINE.

Competition: DeepGreen attracts high-profile backers

Unsurprisingly, GSR isn’t the only player to stake its claim in the CCZ, whose waters it currently shares with DeepGreen, a Canadian deep sea mining start-up also looking to extract cobalt and battery metals from the seafloor.

Similar to GSR, DeepGreen is focussed on harvesting these nodules – small rocks formed over millions of years at the bottom of the sea – as opposed to underwater mounds, also believed to contain numerous minerals and rare metals.

While the two groups are utilising different technologies – DeepGreen plans to hoover up nodules using remote-control harvesting vehicles – some reports have incorrectly claimed GSR and DeepGreen are working in partnership, something Ogden was keen to debunk.

“Patania II is not co-developed by GSR and Deep Green,” he wrote in an email. “They have no relationship at all. They are separate companies with separate projects, using separate technologies.”

Fronted by Australian entrepreneur Gerard Barron, DeepGreen has attracted some high-profile backing. Its research vessel is provided by Maersk, the world’s biggest container shipper; it is reported to have already completed three trips. In early June, it was revealed that the start-up had secured further financing from Swiss-based offshore pipeline group Allseas, as part of a $150m funding round.

Cobalt hopes: Meeting clean technology demand, tacking child labour

DeepGreen could not be reached for comment for this article, but Barron has previously spoken of the untapped potential held within seabed nodules – which are roughly the size of a fist – to slake demand for metals used in clean energy technologies, and, in turn, contribute to society’s move away from fossil fuels.

Deepsea cobalt deposits could also help miners and manufacturers clean up their supply chains, Barron told the Financial Times last year, on account of more than 60% of the global supply of cobalt currently coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where child labour is rife. Transitioning to deep sea mining could also help to reduce deforestation in certain parts of the world, as demand for cobalt continues to grow due to its use in electric vehicle batteries predominantly.

“There’s no point thinking you’re doing the planet a favour by driving an electric vehicle if those materials have been mined by the hands of children, or you have had to deforest important rainforest assets,” said Barron in November.

For the likes of Barron, the potential for deep sea mining to transform the supply of niche metals to the clean energy sector might be a no-brainer, but environmentalists are sceptical. Some NGOs fear that mining could have disastrous consequences on deep sea ecosystems, possibly wiping out entire marine species.

“While it’s true that mining for essential and finite raw materials often endangers workers and leaves the earth irreversibly scarred, the solution is not – and cannot be – to translate these mining impacts to other ecosystems that provide crucial services to humanity and our climate,” wrote Greenpeace’s Sebastian Losada and Pierre Terras in a joint op-ed, posted on the NGO’s website last year.

Waiting on a decision: ISA talks on deep sea mining still ongoing

One thing minerals companies and green campaigners do share in common is a keen interest in ongoing discussions taking place within the ISA. The Jamaica-headquartered UN body met for talks in March to hammer out a new law on deep sea mining.

Consisting of more than 160 members states, the ISA is said to be close to ratifying new regulations around exploitation in international waters (the ISA has already drawn up rules on exploration) that could come into play by the end of 2020.

Speaking recently ahead of the body’s next round of talks, scheduled for July, ISA Secretary General Michael Lodge told Reuters: “I think it’s possible if there is the political will to do it.”

Even in the event of such regulations coming into play at the end of next year, it will most probably be some time before miners set to work on the ocean floor. Companies, such as DeepSea and GSR, will need their technologies to undergo scientifically rigorous testing before operations get the green light. GSR is planning a third trial, Patania III, for 2023, which will attempt to bring nodules to the surface.

According to scientists at the US Geological Survey, the deep sea could contain more cobalt, nickel and rare earth minerals than all land-based reserves combined. The agency has forecast deep sea mining of critical metals to account for 15% of global supply by 2050.

It’s a bold prediction, but one which miners are counting on coming true.

Source: Mining Technology