Where Should Metals For The Green Transition Come From
Comment of the Day

May 22 2020

Commentary by Eoin Treacy

Where Should Metals For The Green Transition Come From

This whitepaper may be of interest to subscribers. Here is a section:   

Novel techniques, efficiency innovations, or alternate raw-material sources can create step-function changes in industry outcomes. Seafloor nodules may present such an opportunity; a very large supply of EV battery metals lies in a relatively small area of the ocean floor.

Ocean minerals come in several forms: seafloor massive sulfides (SMSs—similar to land sulfides), cobalt crusts, and polymetallic nodules. In this report, we focus only on polymetallic nodules sitting unattached on the ocean floor in an area of the South Pacific Ocean known as the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) (see Figure 13). The metal composition of this ocean resource is uniquely aligned with the base metal needs of the EV industry; polymetallic nodules contain nickel, cobalt, and manganese required for EV batteries, and copper required for battery-current collectors and electric harnesses. The ratio of nickel to cobalt closely matches the ratio of NMC 811 battery chemistry (see Table 2). The size of the resource is substantial, with CCZ nodules containing enough metal to electrify the global EV fleet four times over.

Unlike land-based ore bodies that fall under the jurisdiction of sovereign nation-states, the CCZ polymetallic nodules are located in international waters and are deemed to be part of the “common heritage of mankind.” According to international law, the development of this resource needs to be undertaken in a manner that benefits both developed and developing nations. The use of this resource is regulated by the International Seabed Authority (ISA), an intergovernmental body established in 1994 by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The ISA has so far issued 16 exploration contracts, with the stated goal of having regulations in place by 2020 to allow prompt commencement of commercial production.

The development of the polymetallic nodule resource has been greeted with opposition from several ocean conservation-focused NGOs, including Greenpeace and DOSI.71 The main objection is centered around impacts on deep-sea wildlife: removing nodules will mean removing a feature of the habitat that is critical for several life functions of nodule-dwelling marine animals.

Eoin Treacy's view

There is no getting around the fact the mining is damaging to the environment or that renewable energy solutions are very metal intensive. Everyone wants a cleaner environment but there is a lot of resistance to siting the infrastructure to deliver the raw materials or generating capacity anywhere near civilisation. That is the main point being made by Michael Moore’s new movie. 

The deep ocean floor is about as far from my backyard as is possible and there are a lot of deep-sea drilling rigs which are now surplus to requirement because of the oil crash. That suggests clear scope for more deep-sea mining at a scale that was never previously imaginable. It is also likely to have untold consequences for the marine life of the Pacific Ocean. With greater understanding of what biomass energy production means for forests, there is likely to be a search for an alternative.

If China’s record of encroaching on fishing rights in Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines is any guide, deep sea mining is likely be a top priority. The harvesting giant clams for example is particularly destructive and that is only for a source of food. When the national priorities of the government are considering deep sea mining makes a lot of sense and China does not have a green lobby other than to virtue signal when it pleases them. 

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