Deep sea mining: good idea or huge mistake?

25 July 2017

Interview with

Dr Jon Copley, University of Southampton

Now, we can explore the deep, with robots, manned submarines and we can use maths to help find certain things, but why? Well, apart from salvaging things we’ve lost down there, there is also an entire hidden world with new creatures and rare chemistries waiting to be understood. In fact, the bottom of the ocean is of interest to many mining companies, as it is rich in many rare earth elements. But should we mine the deep? Graihagh Jackson heard both sides from Dr Jon Copley, from the University of Southampton.

Jon -  It’s the metals that we need for our everyday lives. Modern technology needs a lot of things like copper; your family car’s got about 30 kg of copper in it. But a hybrid car that emits less CO2 needs about 70 kg of copper. Then there are these metals called rare earth elements that we need in high technology sort of devices. So things like touch screens use something called indium, there’s neodymium which we use to make really efficient magnets for things like wind turbines so there’s an increasing demand for these metals for our everyday lives. There are sources of those metals on the ocean floor so that’s why people are starting to get interested in trying to see if we can mine what’s down there.

There are really three types of mineral deposits on the ocean floor. There’s hot vents where mineral spires grow that are very rich in copper. Then there are manganese nodules that are new potato sized little nodules on the ocean floor - they’ve got a lot of rare earth elements in them. And then there are crusts that form around the edge of undersea mountains called seamounts and then, again, they’re potentially rich in rare earth elements.

Graihagh - You paint a beautiful picture of all these things growing on the seafloor but how would you get them? Would you drill them, would you dredge them?

Jon - One of the attractions of deep sea mining is, unlike mining on land where you have to burrow and tunnel down through a lot of rock to get to the things you’re interested in mining, these are sitting on the ocean floor. So, if you can get down through the water then, potentially, you can scoop those resources up. And, of course, we have the technology as we’ve been hearing about in this programme to operate in deep water. A lot of it’s been developed for offshore oil and gas for the remotely operated vehicles that people use to do things on the ocean floor. You can adapt and develop that technology potentially to mining machines for deep.

Graihagh - I know it was talked originally about in the ‘60s and now you say it’s feasible, but is it economically viable?

Jon - It always sits on a bit of knife-edge. Supply and demand and there’s also some complex economics involved. But back in the ‘60s there wasn’t the demand for the rare earth elements that we have with modern technology today so that is changing things

Now, although they’re called rare earth elements, they’re not necessarily that rare, it’s just that some countries control about 90% of the deposits known on land. So governments are really interested in long term security of supply trying to ensure we don’t get caught in any monopolies in the future and, therefore, interested in exploring new sources.

Graihagh - Okay, I see. Presumably though this is a similar problem at the bottom of the ocean - who owns that bit of land?

Jon - Yeah. Although who owns what at the bottom of the ocean has already been decided at the United Nations through something called The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. That means that if you have a coastline you get 200 nautical miles, which is about 370 kilometres of ocean stretching out from your coastline unless you bump into someone else’s claim which gets split down the middle.

Then beyond that a lot of the ocean is international waters. The United Nations has created an organisation called the International Seabed Authority to administer deep sea mining in international waters.

Graihagh - Presumably though, with all human activity, particularly mining, there’s got to be some sort of ecological impact?

Jon - Absolutely. And the real challenge in the deep ocean is we don’t understand very much about  the patterns of life down there; how things are going to respond to deep sea mining. Each types of those mineral reources that I described has got different kinds of marine life associated with it and they’re going to respond in different ways and, indeed, there are different species in different regions of the ocean. So we have to do an awful lot more exploration and investigation before we can really confidently predict what the impacts of deep sea mining are going to be, so there’s a real challenge for us there.

In 2011, I surveyed a set of deep sea vents in the southwest Indian Ocean in a region where China had already been granted a licence in international waters by the United Nations to explore for mineral resources, but we had no idea what was living at the deep sea vents in that region. We found, at least so far, six new animal species, most of which are not yet known anywhere else in the world other than the site where we were studying. So it’s that kind of thing, it’s exploitation potentially racing ahead of the exploration we need to understand what the impacts are going to be.

Graihagh - Just to play devil’s advocate here, as the old proverb goes “what we don’t know can’t harm us.” So does it really matter if we’re causing these creatures to go extinct?

Jon - In the southwest Indian Ocean, one of the species living at the hot vents there is a wonderful animal called the scaly foots nail, and it has metal plates on its fleshy foot unlike any other snail that we know of so far in nature. And the structure of it’s shell is very good at resisting mechanical damage, and material scientists are learning from that to design better body armour, better crash helmets, better pipeline protection scratch resistant paint. So, if we lose biodiversity, we lose the opportunity to learn from the ingenuity of nature.

But more fundamentally than that, if you look at the history of our species, we’ve often rushed to exploit a resource just because we can, and only later realise the impact we’re having and said hand on a minute, maybe that wasn’t such a good idea. So deep sea mining really, fundamentally, offers us an opportunity to show whether we’ve grown up as a species. Are we still really an adolescent species that just does things because it can, or can we once show that we’ve developed the wisdom to pause and decide whether we should go ahead and do something rather than just rush in and do i because we can?

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