The deep ocean floor contains vast natural resources that can power the world’s transition to net zero. Extracting these raw materials presents a huge technical challenge for scientists and companies investing vast financial resources and research into innovative robotic solutions.
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Deep Sea Mining: A Solution to Resource Scarcity and Climate Change?
As industry reduces its reliance on fossil fuels, there is a need for critical metal resources such as cobalt, zinc, nickel, gold, manganese, and copper. These metals are crucial for making solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicle batteries, as well as a plethora of everyday electronic devices such as smartphones and laptops.
While the world has sufficient land-based resources of many key metals, these are not inexhaustible, and resource scarcity is becoming a growing issue as more resources are used up. Furthermore, mining operations are incredibly environmentally damaging and carbon-intensive.
Deep sea mining has been proposed in recent decades as a potential solution to resource scarcity and carbon emissions. This type of mining is less carbon-intensive and relieves pressure on virgin sites, protecting vulnerable ecosystems and communities on land.
Deep sea mining also provides an opportunity for island nations that are traditionally economically vulnerable. In 2021, Nauru, a Pacific nation, called for increased international attention on regulations and a roadmap toward ocean floor resource extraction to provide economic benefits for the country.
The precious metal resources in the deep sea are contained in polymetallic nodules formed millions of years ago and lie on the seabed. Exploiting the resources contained within them does not require intensive extraction methods like on land.
Metal ores extracted from mines typically only have a resource yield of around 2%, with yields rarely reaching above 20%. In comparison, the metallic yield of polymetallic nodules is typically 33%, and the overall material yield, including resources such as construction aggregates, is around 99%.
Using Robots in Deep Sea Mining
Nodule mining technology has been researched since the 1970s. However, conventional approaches risk causing vast and potentially irreversible damage to fragile seabed ecosystems.
Conventional approaches include using hydraulic suction dredges and “crawler” vehicles to retrieve nodules. However, these approaches risk potentially irreversible damage to vast tracts of ocean floors, stirring up huge amounts of sediment and displacing vulnerable organisms.
Using robots, on the other hand, could provide a less intensive approach to seabed nodule mining. Swarms of robots can extract nodules one at a time, store them in a collector, and transport them to a processing plant without damaging the surrounding ecosystem.
Utilizing a robotic approach to deep sea mining could be less environmentally impactful than conventional dredging methods, as it is still an emerging field, and more research is needed to fully understand its potential.
Eureka: A Currently Proposed Deep Sea Mining Robot
Several projects are currently in different stages of development, taking advantage of developments in robotics, AI, machine learning, and many other innovative technologies. One such project is Eureka.
Impossible Metals’ Eureka robot prototype utilizes an AI-driven retractable arm to retrieve polymetallic nodules. The on-board artificial intelligence informs the arm on whether nodules are worth collecting, and the entire process is designed to extract resources with pinpoint accuracy and minimize damage.
Impossible Metals envision deploying a robotic fleet at a cost of $5 million each, able to travel up to four miles underwater to collect precious metals. While recognizing that several challenges still exist with this approach, the company is confident that it will be able to realize the potential of Eureka in the coming years.
The Future of Robots in Deep Sea Mining
Although the benefits of deep sea mining are increasingly becoming apparent, there is growing criticism of the push toward seabed resource extraction. Many marine biologists and oceanographers are concerned about the environmental impact of technologies.
The ocean plays a critical role in the planet’s basic functioning. Vast reservoirs of carbon dioxide are sequestered deep in the ocean, which could be released by intensive mining operations and further exacerbate climate change. Sediment plumes could poison food chains.
Recognizing the potential risks, the UN has agreed to the High Sea treaty, which highlights the importance of ocean conservation. To truly understand the benefits of deep sea mining, the risks must also be understood. Creating another environmental disaster would fly in the face of current green pledges.
Robots could play a vital role in this new frontier, crawling over the seabed and the bottoms of deep lakes to extract precious metals for use in green technologies. More research and development is needed before robots can be deployed at scale across the world’s oceans.
References and Further Reading
Tracy, B (2023) Underwater robots could usher in a high-tech future for deep sea mining [online] cbsnews.com. Available at: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/underwater-robots-could-usher-in-a-high-tech-future-and-new-era-for-electric-vehicles/
Conca, J (2021) Is Mining The Ocean Bottom For Metals Really Better Than Mining On Land? [online] forbes.com. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2021/02/24/is-mining-the-ocean-bottom-for-metals-really-better-than-mining-on-land/
Halper, E (2023) Unleash the deep-sea robots? A quandary as EV makers hunt for metals. [online] washingtonpost.com. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2023/04/05/deep-sea-mining-electric-vehicles