Renewables’ deep-sea mining conundrum
British scientists exploring an underwater mountain in the Atlantic Ocean have discovered a treasure trove of rare minerals.
Their investigation of a seamount more than 500km (300 miles) from the Canary Islands has revealed a crust of “astonishingly rich” rock.
Samples brought back to the surface contain the scarce substance tellurium in concentrations 50,000 times higher than in deposits on land.
Tellurium is used in a type of advanced solar panel, so the discovery raises a difficult question about whether the push for renewable energy may encourage mining of the seabed.
The rocks also contain what are called rare earth elements that are used in wind turbines and electronics.
Known as Tropic Seamount, the mountain stands about 3,000m tall – about the size of one of the middle-ranging Alpine summits – with a large plateau at its top, lying about 1,000m below the ocean surface.
Using robotic submarines, researchers from the UK’s National Oceanography Centre found that the crust is dark and fine-grained and stretches in a layer roughly 4cm thick over the entire surface of the mountain.
Dr Bram Murton, the leader of the expedition, told the BBC that he had been expecting to find abundant minerals on the seamount but not in such concentrations.
“These crusts are astonishingly rich and that’s what makes these rocks so incredibly special and valuable from a resource perspective.”
He has calculated that the 2,670 tonnes of tellurium on this single seamount represents one-twelfth of the world’s total supply.
And Dr Murton has come up with a hypothetical estimate that if the entire deposit could be extracted and used to make solar panels, it could meet 65% of the UK’s electricity demand.
He says he is not advocating deep-sea mining, which has yet to start anywhere in the world and is likely to be highly controversial because of the damage it could cause to the marine environment.
But Dr Murton does want his team’s discovery, part of a major research project called MarineE-Tech, to trigger a debate about where vital resources should come from.
“If we need green energy supplies, then we need the raw materials to make the devices that produce the energy so, yes, the raw materials have to come from somewhere.
“We either dig them up from the ground and make a very large hole or dig them from the seabed and make a comparatively smaller hole.
“It’s a dilemma for society – nothing we do comes without a cost.”
Scientists are now weighing up the relative risks and merits of mining on land as opposed to on the seabed.
Mines on land often require forests and villages to be cleared, overlying rocks to be removed and roads or railways to be built in order to extract ores with relatively weak concentrations of minerals.
By contrast, mines on the seabed would extract far richer ores, covering a smaller area and with no immediate impact on people – but instead killing marine life wherever digging machines are deployed and potentially devastating a far wider area.
One major concern is the effect of plumes of dust, stirred up by excavation of the ocean floor, spreading for long distances and smothering all life wherever it settles.
To understand the implications, the expedition to Tropic Seamount conducted an experiment, the first of its kind, to mimic the effects of mining and to measure the resulting plume.
Deploying from the UK research ship James Cook, a remotely operated vehicle deliberately pumped out hundreds of litres of sediment-filled water every minute while other robotic sensors were positioned downstream in the ocean current.
According to Dr Murton, early results indicate that dust was hard to detect 1km away from the source of the plume, suggesting that the impact of mining could be more localised than many fear.
But this comes as different disciplines within marine science are coming up with a range of perspectives on this emerging development.
A study led by Dr Daniel Jones, also at the NOC, reviewed evidence of seabed exploration and found that in the wake of mining many marine creatures would be likely to recover within a year but that few would return to their previous levels even after two decades.
Another study focused on tiny organisms on the floor of the Pacific Ocean in a region known as the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, which stretches in a belt south of Hawaii.
Much of this zone has been licensed by the UN’s International Seabed Authority to companies from more than a dozen countries to search for minerals in the potato-sized rocks or “nodules” lying on the seabed.
Prof Andy Gooday, also of the NOC, and colleagues found that among the metals-rich nodules, there is a far greater diversity of single-celled organisms called xenophyophores than previously thought.
Their research identified as many as 34 species of these lifeforms that are new to science.
These organisms occupy one of the lower rungs in the food chain and also play an important role by forming hard shell-like structures, like miniature coral reefs, that provide habitats for other creatures.
Prof Gooday says that the range of life in the sediments of the deep ocean can be compared with that of a tropical rainforest and that “life on the ocean floor is more dynamic” than anyone expected.
He believes it is unlikely that seabed mining would cause species to go extinct but that the impact locally would be severe.
“If you eliminate these xenophyphores, which are very fragile and would certainly be destroyed by mining, it would destroy habitat structure for other organisms.
“It’s difficult to predict and, like everything in the deep sea connected with the effects of mining, we need to learn more – we still know so little about what’s going on down there.”