Deep sea mining as part of the European Union’s supply chain.

There is a growing awareness that human activities are having a major impact on the earth’s ecosphere. And given the global human population expected to reach over 9 billion by 2050, urbanisation, access to energy, infrastructure development, and poverty reduction the result is an unprecedented strain on our planet’s natural resources and environment.

The 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change indicates a global resolve to embark on development patterns that would significantly be less greenhouse gas (GHG) intensive. As part of this transition we are already seeing a remarkable growth in renewable energy technologies, now accounting for about 17% of global energy consumption. The need to meet future energy demands, while striving for a low carbon future, is the basis of the rapid uptake of climate-friendly technologies. However these new technologies do result in a growing demand of mineral resources, see figure 1.

The importance of a sustainable supply of raw materials to the European Union has been well recognized in different strategic policy documents. The Europe 2020 Strategy highlighted the importance of this issue both within the ‘Industrial Policy’ and ‘Resource Efficiency’ Flagship initiatives, as well as in the associated ‘Roadmap on Resource Efficiency’. In these initiatives particular importance is given to the expected supply shortages of Critical Raw Materials (CRM). CRM’s are vital for Europe’s innovative technologies, for the manufacturing of crucial alloys and for new and innovative products like batteries for electric cars, photovoltaic systems and devices for wind turbines.

However, conventional land based deposits are primarily situated outside Europe. Moreover, the quality of land based ore is declining, thereby increasing amounts of energy and water are required for exploitation. Future land based deposits will therefore be more difficult and expensive to extract.
Given the European Union’s high dependence on raw materials imports, major challenges arise regarding the security of supply of raw materials as basis for the European Union’s sustainable growth and competiveness.

One approach to mitigate the impact of these challenges is to explore the potential of deep sea mineral resources. Hereto, the European Commission is helping to accelerate innovations that ensure secure and sustainable supplies of raw materials by funding amongst others the Blue Nodules project. In Blue Nodules a consortium of 14 leading European industry and research organisations develop the seafloor and sea surface processes and equipment for deep sea harvesting of Polymetallic Nodules.

Commercially interesting quantities of Polymetallic Nodules occur in the Clarion Clipperton Zone (CCZ) in the Central Pacific Ocean (see figure 2). In 2009 the International Seabed Authority (ISA) published a comprehensive assessment of the polymetallic nodule resources found in the CCZ. It concludes that the CCZ may host more than 27 billion tonnes of nodules, possibly containing 7 billion tonnes of Manganese, 340 million tonnes of Nickel, 290 million tonnes of Copper and 58 million tonnes of Cobalt.
Contracts for the prospecting and exploration of Polymetallic Nodules in the CCZ are granted by the ISA (see figure 3). On January 14th, 2013 Blue Nodules partner GSR (Global Seabed Resources) and ISA signed a 15-year contract for prospecting and exploration of Polymetallic Nodules. Under the contract, GSR has exclusive rights for the exploration of 76,728 km2 of seabed in the eastern part of the CCZ.

The most valuable metals in Polymetallic Nodules as found in the Clarion Clipperton Zone of the Central Pacific Ocean are Nickel, Cobalt, Copper and Manganese. These metals will likely rise in demand to be able to deliver a carbon-constrained future. This primarily because the technologies that accommodate the clean energy shift – wind, solar, hydrogen and electricity systems – are in fact more material intensive than current fossil-fuel-based energy supply systems. For illustration; the World Bank released a report titled ‘The Growing Role of Minerals for a Low Carbon Future’. This report quantifies the metals demand for various low carbon technologies to meet the Paris Agreement’s objective to keep the global temperature rise this century below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The most significant example of this being electric storage batteries, where the rise in relevant metals – aluminium, cobalt, iron, lead, lithium, manganese and nickel – grow in demand to more than 1000 percent.

Figure 1: Demand versus Supply of Resources

Figure 2: Exploring Polymetallic Nodules in the Clarion Clipperton Zone

Figure 3: Exploration Areas for Polymetallic Nodules in the Clarion Clipperton Zone (