Jul 6, 2021 - Energy & Environment

The future of EV batteries could be found under the sea

Image of The Metals Company's collector robot on the bottom of the sea, collecting metal rich rocks.
A collector robot gathers polymetallic nodules on the seabed for processing. Photo courtesy of The Metals Company

All the battery metals we need to power a billion electric vehicles could be lying on the floor of the Pacific Ocean — but collecting them and turning them into EV batteries is a major challenge.

Why it matters: It's going to take a lot of batteries to replace the world's gasoline-powered cars with zero-emission EVs. And that will require digging more lithium, nickel, cobalt, copper and manganese out of the earth.

  • Experts worry that mining's environmental threats could outweigh the benefits of increased renewable energy production.

What's happening: The Metals Company of Vancouver claims it has identified a less damaging way to mine battery metals from ancient rocks resting on the seafloor.

Context: Polymetallic nodules are metal-rich rocks formed slowly over millions of years as layers of iron and manganese hydroxides grew around a small shell or rock fragment. Many also contain nickel, copper and cobalt.

  • One of the largest nodule deposits is the Clarion Clipperton Zone in the Pacific Ocean 1,000 miles west of Mexico and roughly 500 miles south of Hawaii well outside any country's territory.
  • Exploration rights to the underwater field are controlled by the International Seabed Authority, created in 1982 by the United Nations to ensure mining in international waters benefits all countries, not just wealthy ones.
  • Through sponsorship deals with three tiny Pacific island nations vulnerable to climate change — Nauru, Tonga and Kiribati — The Metals Company secured exploration rights to approximately 150,000 square kilometers of the ISA-licensed seabed.
  • Those sections alone contain estimated rock resources sufficient for 280 million EVs — a quarter of the total global passenger car fleet, says CEO Gerard Barron.
  • "Mother Nature has done a great job putting all these amazing rocks in one place," he adds.

How it works: A robotic collector — akin to a giant vacuum — skims designated areas of the seabed, sucking up polymetallic nodules lying amid a thin layer of sediment, before pumping them up to a production support vessel on the surface.

  • The collected nodules are then transported to shore for further processing and refining.

The other side: "Sending gigantic mining machines designed to bulldoze and churn up the seabed is clearly a very bad idea," according to a Greenpeace post.

  • Deep-sea mining will damage sensitive and unique habitats, threatening sea creatures and disrupting the ocean food chain, the organization argues.

The Metals Company sees it differently. The rocks are easily removed without blasting, drilling or excavating traditional ore mining practices that cause deforestation and create toxic waste.

  • "They're literally sitting there like golf balls on a driving range," said Barron.
  • Microorganisms on the seabed are not destroyed, he said. Instead, they are "shaken up and carry on," he said.

What's next: The company, founded in 2009 as DeepGreen Metals, is going public via merger with a shell company called Sustainable Opportunities Acquisition Corporation.

  • The SPAC deal puts the firm's value at $2.9 billion and will provide investment capital to begin pilot production by 2024, likely in Asia.
  • Revenue from the pilot project will help fund a portion of the $7 billion the company will need to ramp up to full-scale production, which could begin in the United States by 2026, according to the company's public filings.
The reality is that the clean energy transition is not possible without taking billions of tons of metal from the planet. Seafloor nodules offer a way to dramatically reduce the environmental bill of this extraction.
— Gerard Barron, The Metals Company

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