The Future of Electric Cars And Deep Sea Mining: On The Way To A System Change And Energy Transition

By 2030, 125 million electric cars are expected to be on the roads globally. With just around 5.5 million electric vehicles currently, this is still quite ambitious. For electromobility to really protect the climate, the energy transition is also needed.

Many raw materials that we need for our smartphones, for example, will soon become scarce. The manufacturers are therefore looking for new sources of raw materials – they will find what they are looking for in the deep sea. Commercial deep-sea mining is slated to begin in 2019 – the impact on the marine ecosystem is likely to be fatal.

On the seabed at depths of 1,500 to 5,000 meters are immeasurable treasures in the form of mineral resources: Manganese nodules and manganese crusts, for example, with their high content of cobalt, copper and nickel. There are also massive sulphides containing non-ferrous metals such as copper, zinc and lead, but also rare piles of earth and precious metals such as gold and silver.

These raw materials are used for numerous industrially manufactured products of our daily use, for example, electric cars, wind turbines, mobile phones, fiber optic cables, alloys and other electronics.

The pronounced explosiveness of the topic is reinforced by a development that is often referred to as Industry 4.0. Their major future technologies are all highly dependent on rare piles of earth, which can only be found in small quantities in the soil and which have to be extracted with great effort.

And even if digitization is steadily advancing, the current technology trend does not result in dematerialization, on the contrary. For example, it is still unclear how battery cells from electric cars can be disposed of in an environmentally friendly manner or how their components can even be reintegrated into the material cycle. One thing is sure, more and more electric cars are being produced.

Incidentally, cobalt, an important conflict mineral that is primarily mined under inhumane conditions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is currently irreplaceable in the production of batteries. And science is unlikely to find a way to replace the rare earth with a less problematic equivalent in the coming decades.

The cobalt mining in the Congo alone leads to massive air and water pollution, land expropriation, child labor, health problems caused by cobalt dust as well as radioactive rock and much more.

Bulbs for electric cars

Manganese nodules arise over millions of years, in which particles dissolved in water are deposited on solid cores such as mussel shells. They lie on the ocean floor, can reach the size of a cauliflower, and contain many sought-after substances – up to three percent copper, nickel and cobalt. The European Union regards cobalt as a critical raw material because of its strategic importance for the economy.

Because without cobalt, there are no lithium-ion batteries that are installed in smartphones or laptops – or electric cars, Between 2001 and 2017, global demand for cobalt increased by 6.6 percent annually. Last year, the global output was 140,000 tons. If electric cars really are to replace hundreds of millions of climate-damaging diesel and petrol engines, significantly more cobalt will be needed in the medium term.

This is how deep-sea mining works

In contrast to mining on land, deep-sea mining does not drill holes and dig shafts, but plows the seabed. Purpose-built machines do this work with rollers and screw-shaped screws on the upper layer of the seabed.

The exposed manganese nodules are then “harvested” by remote-controlled collectors, that is, they are picked up or vacuumed up as if they were vacuuming and brought to a production ship on the surface of the sea. The ores are dewatered on the vessels, stored temporarily and later transported to transport ships.

Manganese nodules lie freely around the seabed. Solid sulphides, however, are bound to rock. The latter can be found in “black smokers,” these are sulfur-containing openings that look like miniature volcanoes. The solid sulfides must first be broken out of the rock with machines before they can be collected. This makes their dismantling difficult.

Basically, the technical challenges for deep-sea mining are enormous: it is dark, the pressure is very high and the temperatures are low. Also, the technology required for deep sea mining is very expensive. But if the world market price for scarce resources increases, the commitment in this area will also be financially worthwhile.

Fight at the bottom of the sea

Deep sea mining is about a lot of money. Up to 200 nautical miles off the coast, the respective states have the right to extract raw materials on the seabed or to grant mining licenses (“exclusive economic zone”). The International Seabed Authority in Kingston, Jamaica, is responsible for the high seas. To date, it has granted 29 preliminary exploration licenses – including to the EU, China, Japan and Russia. 16 of these concern manganese nodule fields in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone in the Eastern Pacific.

The licenses oblige the federal states also to check the environmental compatibility. They are valid for 15 years and include a right to later dismantling. The authority has not yet issued any permits for the commercial mining of ores. There is no legal framework for this, which defines environmental standards and regulates how the effects on the deep-sea ecosystem should be monitored. This so-called mining code is currently being negotiated by the EU and the other 167 member states of the authority and should be available in 2020. That would be the starting signal for mining.

What are the consequences of deep sea mining for humans and animals?

If you look at the machines for harvesting manganese nodules in the deep sea, it becomes clear why deep-sea mining can be problematic: tracked vehicles churn the seabed. The devices generate noise, light, and vibrations in otherwise quiet and dark regions. In addition, the mining equipment whirls up sediment particles and creates cloud clouds near the ground that destroy organisms living on the seabed, such as sponges, shells, starfish and bacteria.

The water sucked up with the manganese nodules is returned. This means that the cloudy clouds also reach the upper water layers, where they disrupt ecosystems: the pollutants they contain, such as heavy metals, are carried away by the ocean currents and reach water regions that are rich in oxygen and fish, affect living beings there and ultimately also reach our food chain.

To date, the extent of environmental damage to the seabed caused by mining equipment in deep sea mining cannot be calculated. The deep sea, its creatures, and the effects of the technology used are still far too little researched.

This much is known from expeditions: Many organisms live in the top five to ten centimeters of the seabed. It is also known that the resettlement of mined areas would take many decades, perhaps even centuries.