Batteries powered by oceans’ treasure

Electric vehicles are a key part of halting climate change, but they require a lot of rare metals. The answer to that problem may lie at the bottom of the ocean.

Two years. That’s how long it’s taken for the number of electric cars on the world’s roads to double to 7 million. By 2030, under current policies, there could be at least 140 million, according to the International Energy Agency. Or as many as 230 million if governments embraced sustainable development.1

On the face of it, that’s great news for the environment. But it brings its own challenges. One is whether the electricity used comes from sustainable sources. Another is the huge amount of metal needed to make electric vehicle batteries.

“We all understand the way to stop using fossil fuels is to make the green, clean transition – build batteries, drive electric vehicles. But, of course, producing metals that are necessary to build these batteries hasn’t come under the same scrutiny – yet,” Gerard Barron, CEO and chairman of the Metals Company, tells the Found In Conversation podcast.

“When you add up all of the vehicles on the road that we are planning to electrify, when you add up all of the power stations that need to be converted to renewable power, and the batteries that are needed to store the energy for when the wind doesn’t blow, and all the homes that need to be converted, we are talking about billions of tons of metals that are going to be needed to facilitate that.”

The Metals Company estimates that an electric vehicle with a 75 kWh battery pack and a NMC 811 cathode requires 56 kg of nickel, 7 kg of manganese, and 7 kg of cobalt, plus 85 kg of copper for electric wiring. 

“In the longer term, recycling will take care of a big part of that because of course battery metals are entirely recyclable. But the problem is we need to build a lot of batteries before they become recyclable. Where can we identify the lowest impact supply of these virgin ores? Because at the moment, if we just continue along the path we are going, we are going to continue ripping down our carbon sinks because this is where a lot of these battery metals exist,” Barron says.

“We are going to have to dislodge communities, we are going to have to generate billions of tons of waste and tailings, which endanger human lives. So this is where we need to rethink.”

The answer, he believes, lies literally at the bottom of the ocean. The Metals Company proposes mining the metals from polymetallic nodules on the floor of the Pacific Ocean, in its Clarion Clipperton Zone. It plans to start production by 2024. 

“These are basically an electric vehicle battery in a rock, and we can collect them and massively compress the environmental and social impacts compared to land-based alternatives,” Barron says. 

The plan is to retrieve the nodules from the seabed through a purpose-built riser system which will take them up to a ship. Aboard, they will be separated from the water and sediment (which will be returned into the deep) before being sent ashore via a shuttle carrier, for processing. One such deep-sea mining operation, and the accompanying onshore processing plant, is estimated to cost USD10.6 billion, with annual operating costs of USD1.8 billion after 2030.

Barron estimates that producing metals in this way will generate more than 90 per cent fewer CO2 emissions than the traditional land-based method. It also has less impact in other areas, he adds: “No deforestation, no tailings, no waste and much lower impact on biomass. And of course, the land that is used for mining can then be used for other purposes, it can be used for sequestering more carbon or for agriculture, and making a more sustainable life.”

Deep-sea mining, however, is not without its own controversies. Greenpeace is actively campaigning against the practice, citing potential biodiversity loss and damage to a critical carbon sink.2 

The Metals Company argues that, wherever metal is mined, it will have some impact on life forms and carbon sinks – and that the effects are reduced by following the deep-sea route. “The abyssal seafloor carries 300 to 1,500 times less life and stores 15 times less carbon than ecosystems on land,” its website notes, adding that its mining process will disturb only a small layer of sediment which will then be deposited back on the sea floor, with no possibility of rising to the top.

“I can say with a very high degree of certainty that based on all of the scientific evidence that we and others are gathering, that this is absolutely the best planetary decision on where we should be getting these metals from,” Barron says, adding that he sees deep-sea mining as a stop-gap solution, to be in place until there are enough batteries in operation to facilitate a circular recycling process. 

Within a decade of starting production, the Metals Company plans to move to a closed-loop system of rental and redeployment partnerships with EV and battery manufacturers.

“When our battery comes to the end of life, it will be recycled. And I think consumers will support brands who use recycled materials ... and that using virgin ores in the future will be very uncool,” Barron says. “So, I see our business sunsetting out of collecting nodules in the deep ocean to more of a recycling business. And, of course, with distributed leger technology we can keep track of these metals and eventually we won’t sell these metals, we will rent these metals on a return basis. Because we want them back so we can recycle them for future benefit. That’s the only way you can build a true circular economy.”

[1] IEA, https://www.iea.org/reports/global-ev-outlook-2020
[2] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-deepgreen-m-a-sustainable-opportuniti-idUSKBN2AW1I4

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