The mining machine search for minerals in the water.

Race to the Bottom of the Sea: Blindfold Mining Machines

The ocean is the world’s least well-known habitat. Scientists are not even sure what lives in some ecosystems. But to change the environment and create newer, reduced air pollution technological products, companies search for rare minerals which were found at the bottom of the sea. 

The idea of mining the ocean floor was first proposed in the 1960s but only started properly when technological advancements fuelled by the oil and gas industry made it possible. Now, countries want to produce fewer carbon emissions and phase out the combustion engines. Within a decade more electric cars will be possible to see on the streets. But to power clean tech, like electric cars, solar or wind power, producers need rare metals.  

Many industries and companies focused on technology, try to invest in products beneficial for the environment. Yet, to produce many of these things, the technology relies on rare materials. People invest in more and more new technological gadgets. They are not aware that devices we are surrounded by are often built from raw chemical elements, possible to find at the bottom of the sea. 

The supply of raw materials required for the energy shift is becoming increasingly essential. If the production spreads on a global scale, these resources will be missing or people will search for them mostly in the deep sea. What is left on the land might not be enough. Wind turbines, solar panels, electric car motors, batteries, electrification, and hydrogen electrolysers all need lithium, copper, precious metals, rare earth elements and other resources. 

Should people interfere with nature and let the blindfold mining machines underwater or leave the ocean alone because a huge amount of species can die? 

Ocean under a risk

Mining on the land causes damage to the ecosystem, tailing heaps and contaminated water run-off, acid rain from sulphur in the minerals. But under the sea, there are more of these minerals and they are not owned by any state. Only allowed to explore by the International Seabed Authority, ISE or UN-Oceans. 

Close up of octopus in the water, earth preservation,

The danger caused by sea mining is significant. It can cause the loss of biodiversity and microbes important for storing carbon as well as modification of the ocean’s ‘biological pump’ and overall health and function of the oceans. The mining machines have to operate thousands of metres beneath the water. Scraping of the seafloor and pollution from mining processes can kill the species.

For dumbo octopuses, sea pangolins, and other kinds, it is extremely dangerous for fisheries, water contamination, sound pollution, and habitat damage. Minerals necessary for a green transition, such as copper, cobalt, nickel, and manganese, are also at risk. It means that in order to decarbonize and achieve net-zero emissions, people should begin extracting resources for car batteries and wind turbines, but is it possible?

It is known that the ocean’s water contains three main types of minerals: polymetallic nodules, metallic crusts that contain manganese, cobalt and platinum and sulphides and vents of superheated volcanic waters with zinc, copper, silver and gold.

The depths of our oceans remain largely unexplored, but humankind’s first tentative ventures into the blue abyss have revealed a hidden world full of wonders, where life thrives under great barometric pressure and far from the light of the sun. The fact that life exists at all in such unforgiving conditions, drawing energy from the chemicals expelled from the earth’s core and locking away carbon from our atmosphere, is one of the world’s uncelebrated marvels. What is more, we are now beginning to appreciate the extent to which life in the deep sea also affects the health of the planetary systems on which we all depend. 

Sir David Attenborough, Vice-president FFI, “Fauna & Flora International (FFI)”, 2020. An Assessment of the Risks and Impacts of Seabed Mining on Marine Ecosystems.

Fauna & Flora International (FFI) data proves that mining in shallow water (less than 200 metres) has been practised in a variety of areas for decades, and the effects on marine ecosystems are rather well understood. In contrast, we know very little about the deep waters, making it impossible to predict the effects of mining with any certainty. 

What is going to happen at the bottom of the sea?

According to the Guardian data, on the 29th of June 2021, the tiny Pacific Island nation of Nauru informed the International Seabed Authority (ISA) about its intentions to start mining the seabed in two years of long-running talks about ruling the industry. The idea became public knowledge and there are concerns about how it is possible that a tiny island threatens global safety.

It is known that some countries already send mining machines to the ocean. BBC News in 2014 informed that new areas of the ocean floor have been opened up in an accelerating search for valuable minerals including manganese, copper and gold. India, Brazil, Singapore, Russia, Germany, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States went forward with deep-sea mining (DSM) exploration plans.

The governments in countries claim to protect the ocean but to prove that they should not allow countries to race into the bottom of the sea. According to Reuters, some scientists and environmentalists have called for a ban on this case, saying that too little is known about deep-sea ecosystems. What is known is that deep-sea corals provide a home for a range of creatures that could be harmed by sea mining. 

As specified by the International Energy Agency, the consumption of clean energy systems by 2040 will grow from six to twenty-one times for cobalt, six to eighteen times for nickel and three to eight times for manganese. This means that people need more resources, but at what cost? Two-thirds of global cobalt supply comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, the country where there produced by-products of copper (required in large quantities) and nickel mining. 

The solution to saving the ocean

In accordance with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), to limit the environmental impacts of mining activities, a greater understanding of the deep sea is intended to aid mitigation solutions and proper enforcement of rules.

Underwater machine is exploring the sea habitat.

Reuse

Our planet at the moment is in danger because of climate changes and the carbon-emission, as the combustion engines industry developed significantly but also the volcano’s eruptions cause air pollution. To help the environment and the air on the Earth be cleaner, organisations want to decarbonize and achieve net-zero emissions. 

But searching for minerals in unexplored waters can have a huge, irreversible and global effect on our environment because the cleantech products are made from essential ones for the Earth. The solution is to reuse, for example, batteries or use only the available minerals, instead of trying to find rare metals at all cost.

Ocean explorers

To ensure minimal impact on the ocean ecosystem it has to be done carefully with specialised technology and oversight systems. People in charge of mining machines should be led by experts before making any judgments in order to agree on such environmental repercussions. 

Louisa Casson, an oceans campaigner at Greenpeace International said for the Guardian that discussing the fate of the ocean for two years is not enough and they cannot allow these ‘reckless companies’ to rush headlong into a race to the bottom, where little-known ecosystems will be sold for profit, and the risks and consequences will be pushed to small island countries. She added that to protect the oceans, we urgently need a restriction on deep-sea mining.

Zero waste and recycling

The solution is zero waste and recycling. The green energy system focused on re-use can help save the environment. People should begin extracting resources for car batteries and wind turbines. There are also alternatives, for batteries and lower-cobalt ones but they require more manganese. Already Tesla came up with lithium-iron-phosphate batteries for electric cars that are made from cheaper and more readily available ingredients.

A box full of different types of batteries to recycle.

The Metals Co informed that the mining is supposed to start in 2024 and the regulations will be approved within the next two years. But mining at the bottom of the sea can destroy that habitat before we even get to know it. This is why it is crucial to reuse batteries or other products, recycle and not waste. Especially because obtaining material essentials for the energy transition becomes difficult. We need them to save the planet, lower air pollution and welcome for good the new era of electric technology.

The future of the Earth waters

Humans are always on the lookout for new technologies, such as gadgets, phones, laptops, data centres, electric vehicles, planes, industrial machinery, wind turbines, and power plants. Technology’s global demand not only necessitates ever-increasing raw material inputs but also generates mountains of garbage.

We are already running low on some of the main minerals. It is surprising that consumerism shows us the totally opposite side – that we deserve more and more. To put it clearly, a smartphone to work requires lithium and cobalt for the battery, copper, gold, and silver for wiring and micro-electrical components, arsenic, phosphorus, gallium, and antimony to tune the conductivity of the silicon chip, tantalum for micro-capacitors and more rare materials. 

The Earth globe is half in the water.

People are only settlers on the Earth, nature decides what will happen on the planet. In the setting of element scarcity, we should aim for reuse of the elements already present in all of our gadgets, preserving biodiversity, reducing waste streams, investing in innovation, and reducing the environmental damage caused by mining. 

To help the environment it is important to care about nature. People cannot go forward without any progress. We are simply pests in the ecosystem so we have to live in harmony with nature. The waters have already suffered as a result of human activity. Similarly to the development of plastic, which we are trying to get rid of (or create a bioplastic), technology is fastly growing. And has to shape the people’s awareness of its impact on the environment. Only then we will be able to develop and create newer and newer things to live in an easier and better world.

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