Future Tech May Rely On Deep-Sea Mining

At the bottom of the ocean. In the coming decade, it will play out thousands of feet down in deep dark expanses of sea floor. On one side of the battle are unique and alien-like creatures: giant tube worms, yeti crabs, dandelion-like jellyfish colonies and on the other side, bizarrely, our cell phones, TV’s, wind turbines, modern technology. In a real way, those two interests may end up fighting over one of the most mysterious and dramatic environments on earth, this one. Okay, so this is clearly a model. We don’t have a submarine so we built this instead. You know what I just realized? There are no plants down there. They don’t exist. Thanks to modern electronics, there’s an overwhelming demand for some very particular chemical elements. Gold is used constantly in computer circuitry. Nickel, Manganese, Zinc and Cobalt are needed for batteries and Copper is crucial to countless kinds of wiring. Worldwide, humans mined around 20 million tonnes of Copper in 2017 and those are just a few examples. The point is elements like these power the modern world. Many of these precious metals are sourced from massive terrestrial mines but while we chip away at our reserves on land, some entrepreneurs have been gaming out a very different source of precious minerals. In the deep dark of the sea floor, 10 or even 15 thousand feet down shifting tectonic plates create fissures in the Earth’s crust and allow hot magma to seep close to the sea bed. If the conditions are just right, seawater percolates through the crust, becomes a superheated mineral-rich fluid and shoots back into the ocean. These sites are called hydrothermal vents and for the few people who have actually seen them in person, they are almost beyond words. – It’s laborious to explain what it’s wish to go down in a submersible which I’ve done a fair number of times and you’re arriving on the bottom and you’re at this mid ocean ridge where there’s brand new rock that’s been formed. It’s basalt, it’s black and it’s mostly not much living on it at all. – Dr. Verena Tunnicliffe is a professor and former sea floor adventurer at the University of Victoria. – you are driving on and every one of a fast, you come into a hydrothermal vent and there is just going from black nothing to all of this white microbial production and all of the animals around it. Temperatures up to 400 degrees centigrade so you’ve got these big chimneys that are formed from the minerals and it’s just covered with life. – The first critters to take up shop here are chemosynthetic microbes. Amazingly, they derive energy from chemical reactions, not the sun and they love the vents. – So you’ve got lots of microbes that are producing like mad, it’s food. Now you’ve got lots of animals then coming in because there’s food and therefore, lots and lots of animals that want to eat that food. – Researchers estimate that there may be 600 larger active vents sprinkled along mid-ocean ridges and each one can support its own unique vibrant ecosystem. Researchers like Verena have cataloged new species of sea cucumbers, foot long white clams, squid worms. For biologists, it’s an embarrassment of riches. – Frankly, it’s very easy to find new species at hot vents and I have lost track. I know that we’ve done at least a hundred through the lab. – But in addition to life, there are minerals. As water passes through these systems, a complex set of chemical reactions leach minerals out of the rock. When the fluids spew back out into the cold sea water, the minerals separate out again littering the sea floor with Gold, Copper, Zinc, Manganese and more. There is a theoretical fortune to be made down here and that hasn’t been ignored.

 

In 2017, Japan announced that it had completed a landmark trial mining operation near the island of Okinawa. The mining site was an inactive vent meaning that it was no longer spewing out hydrothermal fluid. It was really just baby steps towards full scale mining but it spooked conservationists because mining a hydrothermal vent really means destroying it. – So they have to go in, they have to cut out the rock and then they have to grind it up into a slurry and the slurry is pumped to the surface. So the habitat is destroyed, the animals are gone, the habitat is converted from big chimneys with lots of niches into mud. – In some cases, vents are naturally resilient. Those that form in volcanically active areas are constantly destroyed and reformed and the animals there have adapted to that volatility. Verena likened them to new growth forests that bounce back quickly after wild fires. But the sites most valuable for miners are mature stable vents. The minerals there built up over thousands of years. – The rocks that are deposited by the vents have taken thousands to tens of thousands and even more years to deposit and form. Those habitats are very stable so those are your old growth forms. – The animals there aren’t adapted to catastrophic disruption and could be wiped out by mining. For all that, vents are probably not in imminent danger. First, if sea floor mining really kicks into high gear, it likely will not start with hydrothermal vents. There are other valuable sources of minerals in the ocean. Many are found within rocky lumpy masses called nodules. Those are scattered across wide flat plains on the sea floor and they may prove easier and cheaper to harvest which is the bottom line of any mining effort. – Financing, financing, financing. Deep sea mining is going to be expensive. And that’s one of the lessons of the Japanese experiment is that “boy, this is hard.” – Conn Nugent is the director of the Pew seabed mining project. It’s a group that advocates from regulation and conservation of the seafloor. As scary as active vent mining sounds, he suspects that it may end up being more trouble than it’s worth. – It would be really hard to conduct exploitation in an active zone because it’s so darn hot. You’d have to devise machineries and delivery system’s and riser systems to withstand scalding temperatures. – The hope is that regulation will come into effect before seabed mining of any kind becomes affordable. The International Seabed authority is a governing body that spun out of the United Nations and it’s working to get a “mining code” enacted by 2020. In the meantime, concerned scientists have come forward to propose criteria for creating “no-mining” zones. For Conn, this would be historic. – Really, this is the first opportunity in which regulations can be written to govern exploitation activity before it begins. You know, can you imagine if in 1859, there were oil drilling regs? It might have been helpful, you know. We had to travel through quite little bit of trial and error and we’re still going through quite a bit of trial and error in governing that. – The demand for the minerals that power electronics isn’t going anywhere and ignoring deep sea mining would mean committing more fully to terrestrial mines. We know what that looks like and it isn’t pretty. So, some amount of seabed mining might make sense in the future. – Go look at a pit mine. Go look and see how Cobalt is removed from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. So, that’s the green argument for deep sea mining and it has validity. – But when it comes to active sea vents, there’s so much left to learn and study. So, even if they’re safe for now, advocates like Conn and Verena would like them to stay that way. – So now is the time to write protections and a key protection is no mining ever in active vent zones. That’s the barroom brawl that we’re willing to enter into.


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