Deep sea mining can support the circular economy
In the Pacific Ocean, Global Sea Mineral Resources (GSR), a subsidiary of dredging firm DEME, is investigating the extraction of mineral ores on the ocean floor. This new technological concept does not exclusively support proponents. Susanova requested an explanation from Kris Van Nijen, General Manager at GSR.
Inès Aoun and Ellen Vervoort June 5, 2018
This article was produced in collaboration with our partner DEME Environmental Contractors (DEC). More information about GSR can be found at deme-group.com/gsr
The bottom of the Pacific Ocean is strewn with potato-shaped polymetallic nodules. They are fish bones or teeth on which minerals have accumulated over billions of years. The ores contain metals such as nickel, cobalt, copper and manganese. Deep sea mining aims to recover these underwater ores. The epicenter of this new industrial activity lies between the Clarion and Clipperton fault lines in the Pacific Ocean, between Hawaii and Mexico. Since 2013, Belgium has a concession zone there, just like some other countries, such as the UK, Japan, India, China, France, Germany and South Korea (see box on ISA).
Why is DEME interested in deep-sea mining?
"It is very important for us as an international dredging company to continue to innovate and diversify. Large companies are constantly working on the future, so that they can maintain and strengthen their market position. That is why we decided several years ago to build up activities in the offshore wind market. "
"We also have the knowledge and expertise in house. The technology we developed for deep-sea mining is based on that for dredging (see box How are the ores mined?). There is also great potential. Seventy percent of the earth surface is water. In the zone where we have a concession, you can find more manganese, nickel and cobalt than in all land-based reserves combined. This is the result of research by James Hein of the US Geological Survey in 2013. "
How far advanced is the project?
"We are currently still in the research phase. We have been working for eight years and we think we need another seven years to make the technology ready for market. In the meantime, we are also analyzing the biodiversity and connectivity between the fauna in the region, and examining the impact deep-sea mining might have.
"In terms of technology, we achieved a major milestone in 2017. We lowered a robot to a depth of 4,500 meters and collected important information. It was the first time that a robot collected this information at that depth and this was necessary to improve the design. We are currently building a second robot that will be ready by the end of this year. It is four times as large and will, among other things, investigate the environmental impact. Next year we will test the robot and if the results of that test fall within the environmental parameters imposed by International Seabed Authority or ISA, we will build a third and final test robot in 2022."
Deep-sea mining is regularly denounced due to the ecological impact. How do you develop a concept that is economically and technologically feasible, but of which the ecological and social impact is also limited?
"GSR is indeed looking at the complete picture: is exploitation economically, geologically, technologically and ecologically justified? In our view, deep-sea mining can have a lower ecological impact than some traditional land-based mining. After all, research shows that the quality of the ores on the land is declining: an ore from a mine used to contain on average four per cent copper ; now that is less than one per cent. As a result, it requires more and more energy to extract less raw material."
"On average, a polymetallic nodule contains four metals. And these minerals are simply lying on the seabed. We do not have to dig up the ground. Nowadays large areas of rainforest have to disappear on land because mining companies look for the ores deep in the earth. In the case of deep-sea mining no major infrastructure works are required. For example, no tunnels have to be dug and even fishing is not compromised because we work so far from the coast and at such great depth. We therefore think that per kilogram of metal extracted the impact on the environment can be smaller. To be able to demonstrate this, we conduct research in collaboration with Belgian universities and international institutions. "
Nonetheless, sediment clouds are created during the extraction process, which can make the water more turbid, which has an impact on biodiversity. How will GSR prevent this? And how will that be monitored during extraction?
"Last year we worked intensively with the Marine Laboratory in Antwerp to develop an efficient solution that can limit these sediment plumes. But we can not avoid the phenomenon altogether. Incidentally, natural phenomena can also temporarily blow up the sediment. For our dredging activities, we have already developed advanced models that can, among other things, predict the direction of the sediment plumes. We will test these theoretical models in practice in 2019. To this end, we are working together with a European consortium (JPIO) that will carry out fully independent checks on our test in 2019. Autonomous underwater vehicles will also monitor the situation during the operations. The data is forwarded directly to us, to the International Seabed Authority and to the Belgian government. “
How will GSR to keep the impact on fauna as low as possible?
"To determine this impact, we work together with the marine biologists of Ghent University. They analyze fauna in the deep sea. The scientists take DNA samples to compare the fauna with other researchers worldwide. We know, for example, that the concentration of fauna biomass per square meter in the deep sea is 5,000 times lower than that in a tropical rainforest that is cut down to extract ores. There is also 300 times more biomass per square meter in desert areas than in the deep sea. It is, however, important to note that the biodiversity of this deep-sea fauna is high. In a next step we will try to map the ecosystem functions and this way we can determine exactly what the impact of deep-sea mining will be.
"Furthermore, it is not the intention to mine all of the nodules. Professor Ann Vanreusel from Ghent University, with whom we collaborate, has shown that we must leave some nodules on the seabed to protect certain megafauna in the deep sea. We determined that we must extract at least 12 kilograms of nodules per square meter to make the project economically feasible. If we find fewer nodules in certain places, we will leave them untouched. In short: we will only mine 20 percent of the zone. The other concession areas granted to other contractors are looking at a similar percentage. The entire ISA zone is six million square kilometers, but first indications suggest that only 360,000 square kilometers are exploitable. All of this will be included in the scope of the legislative framework that the ISA is currently drafting. It is doing this in cooperation with stakeholders including member states, NGOs, academics and the concession holders."
"Based on research, the ISA has also defined zones where no nodules can be mined at all. They are marine protected areas or APEI (Areas of Particular Environmental Interest). These nine zones of 400 by 400 kilometers (or 1.44 million square kilometers) denote an area that must be protected at all times and surrounded by a buffer zone."
Supporting the circular economy
The circular economy is our future. Should we not focus on recycling instead of using new primary raw materials?
"It’s a justified remark. But we forget one thing: the circular economy can only work if enough materials are in circulation. According to a research by Saleem Ali from the University of Delaware that was published in Nature in 2017, that is a problem. Metals can, in contrast to oil, be re-used over and over again. But a large part of those metals are currently in windmills, solar panels, electric cars, mobile phones and infrastructure, and for that last application metals are stuck for a long time. The greatest demand comes from developing countries. Due to the growing world population, urbanization and higher living standards in China, India and a number of African countries, ever larger quantities of metal are needed. Moreover, the demand for renewable energy and electric vehicles will continue to rise. By 2030, 40 million electric vehicles will be built per year. Primary mining is therefore not a competitor of recycling, redesign and recuperation but an ally. Only by focusing on responsible primary mining such as deep-sea mining and on circular economy will we achieve these Sustainable Development Goals of the UN: 'affordable and sustainable energy', 'sustainable cities and communities', 'climate action' and 'life under water’ not to mention the objectives of the Paris climate agreement. "
When do you want to start operations?
"If we achieve our targets next year, we will start building a commercial robot in 2022. In 2023, for the first time on a commercial scale, we will test the extraction of the ores, after which we can proceed to the construction of the entire infrastructure. We will therefore be operational at the earliest in 2026. "
BOX 1 – How are the ores mined?
"We base the technology for deep-sea mining on a technique that we have been using for 150 years. During dredging we use a suction head to suck up the sand and water. We use the water as a transport medium to transport the sand - that is what we call hydraulic transport. We do exactly the same in deep-sea mining. We are building a robot that crawls over the seabed. The robot has a suction mouth that sucks up the water and the nodules. The nodules are brought on board the ship with pumps. A transport ship transports the nodules to a port for further processing. "
BOX 2 – International Seabed Authority ISA watches over the international seabed
Deep sea mining is not a new idea. In 1965 the American mining engineer John L. Mero published the book The Mineral Resources of the Sea. In it he spoke for the first time about the economic value of polymetallic nodules and aroused the interest of the international community. The region that, according to Mero, is rich in ores, is located in international waters. It was not until 1994 that the Implementing Agreement of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) was voted at the UN. UNCLOS aims to extract raw materials for the benefit of mankind, but with specific attention paid to the environment and special emphasis on the needs of developing countries. Since then 167 countries and the European Union have signed the treaty. They sit together in the International Seabed Authority (ISA), an organization that was set up to organize, regulate and control all mineral-linked activities in the international seabed. The ISA is provisionally funded by its members. But when the ores are mined, each concession holder will pay a royalty to the ISA. With this, ISA will finance its operational costs and the remainder of the proceeds will be distributed among the member countries. A total of 17 countries have obtained a concession zone, including South Korea, China, Germany and the United Kingdom. Each zone is 75,000 square kilometers. More information about the International Seabed Authority can be found here.
For the article in Dutch: https://www.susanova.be/artikels/diepzeemijnbouw-is-een-bondgenoot-van-de-circulaire-economie