A vast treasure of critical minerals lies on the ocean floor. Should they be extracted to help fight climate change?
The International Seabed Authority is working to set regulations for deep-sea mining as companies engaged in the clean energy transition clamor for more minerals. That transition will be a central focus at the United Nations’ COP28 climate summit in Dubai from Nov. 30 to Dec. 12. The most-prominent of the three proposed types of deep-sea mining involves using a giant robot that is sent down to the ocean floor from a support vessel.
This robot travels to depths of roughly 5,000 meters to the ocean floor — the least explored place on the planet. The seafloor, especially in parts of the Pacific Ocean, is covered by potato-shaped rocks known as polymetallic nodules that are filled with metals used to make lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles.
Many scientists say it’s unclear whether and to what extent removing these nodules could damage the ocean’s ecosystem. Automaker BMW, tech giant Google and even Rio Tinto, the world’s second-largest mining company, have called for a temporary ban on the practice.
Composed of manganese, nickel, copper, cobalt and other trace minerals, these nodules hold some of the key ingredients needed to fuel the energy transition. The metals in those nodules can be used to build electric vehicle (EV) batteries, cell phones, solar panels and other electronic devices. They are separate from rare earths, a group of 17 metals also used in EVs.
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