Home / Opinion / Columns /  We may tread deep water in pursuit of industrial metals

The confluence of three major forces has triggered a strategic re-evaluation of the global industrial metals supply chain.

First, worries about climate change have accelerated the arrival of electric vehicles (EVs). EVs today are primarily dependent on lithium-ion batteries. The cathode for this battery is made up of layered crystals of lithium metal oxides. The metal is usually a mix of nickel, cobalt, aluminium and manganese. Nickel by itself can give us the most energy-dense batteries, meaning cars with longer driving range, but it is unstable. Cobalt plays the role of boosting energy density and battery life because it keeps the layered structure stable as lithium ions are exchanged from the cathode during battery operation. The dramatic rise in demand for EVs has put the supply of all these metals under stress.

Second, trade tensions between China and the US have a ripple effect on industrial metals because China is often the largest ‘refiner’ of these metals. For instance, about 80% of the world’s lithium refining capacity is controlled by China. In the case of lithium, China imports the raw material from Australia and then refines the ore into usable lithium carbonate or hydroxide used in the batteries. It then supplies this refined lithium to several ‘gigafactories’ that manufacture a disproportionate share of EV batteries.

And third, the conflict in Ukraine has put mineral supply from Russia at risk. Russia is a major producer of many metals, but is a key producer of nickel. The Russian city of Norilsk is situated literally atop the world’s largest deposit of nickel, copper and palladium. Even though Russia is the third-largest producer of nickel by tonnage, sulphide-sourced nickel from Russia is more suitable for EV batteries.

On behalf of countries that need these materials, many companies have been exploring widely in an effort to diversify away from Russia for nickel in particular and Democratic Republic of Congo for cobalt. One of the largest sources of these metals has been identified on ocean floors at a depth of 5,000m or more. The most massive of such fields is located at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean between Mexico and Hawaii in an area called the Clarion Clipperton Zone (CCZ). Approximately the size of the continental United States, the CCZ is home to potato-sized rocks called polymetallic (PM) nodules, which form on or just below the vast sediment-covered abyssal plains. PM consist primarily of precipitated iron hydroxides and manganese oxides on which are found metals like nickel, cobalt, titanium, copper and rare earth elements (other than lithium, typically). There is an enormous quantity of these nodules on the seabed, making it an attractive target for mining.

The International Seabed Authority (ISA) based in Kingston, Jamaica, is the agency that is chartered to “organize, regulate and control all mineral-related activities in the international seabed area for the benefit of mankind as a whole". The ISA is organized under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). It regulates 54% of the world’s deep seabed beyond national jurisdiction. The ISA maintains a Deep Seabed and Ocean Database that serves as a spatial, internet-based data management system. The United Nations Organization for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) and the ISA are the only pan nation-state organizations that work to manage a common property resource.

The exploration for PM creates significant environmental impact on the deep seabed. Over the last few years, research activity has centred on mitigating this environmental impact. A significant area of study has been the ‘sediment plume’ left behind after scooping up PM from the ocean floor. Critics say that the impacts of nodule mining are many. PMs take millions of years to form and provide a critical habitat for an array of unique and understudied species. Deep-sea habitats evolve slowly, so a recovery from mining could take several centuries.

India has been an active member of the ISA and accorded exclusive rights to explore for PMs in the Central Indian Ocean Basin. Located due South of Kanyakumari, these rights cover about 75,000sq-km of area and hold a resource potential of 380 million tonnes, containing nickel, cobalt, copper and manganese. In recent years, the National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT) has conducted research, including the use of a mining machine for locomotion and manoeuvrability at depths greater than 5,000m. India is now designing a manned submersible vehicle called Matsya 6000, capable of ploughing depths of 6,000m.

Less well known than the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), the NIOT has quietly been plumbing the depths of the Indian Ocean. Its mandate is to develop reliable indigenous technologies aimed at harvesting non-living and living resources of the ocean.

India has had a mixed track record of mining on land in a commercially purposeful, environmentally safe and community sensitive way. While deep-sea mining facilitates migration to cleaner technologies and has no local human communities to worry about, it has high technical complexity and a potentially harsh environmental impact. Yet, as the world begins to tread on the deep ocean floor, India may have to follow.

P.S: “How inappropriate to call this planet Earth when it is quite clearly Ocean," said Arthur C. Clarke.

Narayan Ramachandran is chairman, InKlude Labs. Read Narayan’s Mint columns at www.livemint.com/avisiblehand

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