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    Explained: How deep-seabed mining for EV batteries endangers oceans

    Explained: How deep-seabed mining for EV batteries endangers oceans

    Explained: How deep-seabed mining for EV batteries endangers oceans
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    By CNBCTV18.com  IST (Published)


    EV batteries require rare earth elements such as lithium, nickel and cobalt as raw materials. These elements are found in abundance in the deep-ocean floor. While mining investors hope to exploit the mineral resources in deep-seabeds, environment campaigners warn of untold damage to the marine ecosystem.

    As countries strive to cut use of petrol and diesel to meet their carbon emission targets, automakers are shifting focus to electric vehicles (EVs). According to a report by the International Energy Agency (IEA), 230 million EVs may hit the road worldwide by 2030.
    Even though growing demand for EVs is good news for the fight against climate change, these vehicles come with environmental costs. One of the biggest concerns is how metals required for their batteries are sourced.
    EV batteries require rare earth elements such as lithium, nickel and cobalt as raw materials. These elements are sourced from less developed and ecologically-sensitive regions and are often linked to human rights violations like child labour.
    Another source of these elements that has generated a lot of interest is the deep ocean floor. Deep-seabed mining may also help avoid some of the environmental and human rights issues associated with terrestrial mining.
    While mining investors hope to exploit mineral resources in deep-sea beds, campaigners warn of the harmful impacts it could have on the marine ecosystem.
    Why is deep-seabed mining necessary?
    Clean energy technologies like lithium-ion batteries, wind turbines and solar panels use polymetallic nodules, metals and minerals that can be found in the deep-sea floor.
    Polymetallic nodules are lumps that primarily consist of manganese and iron, on to which metals like copper, titanium, nickel and cobalt are absorbed.
    According to a Discovery report, polymetallic nodules do not have unusable heavy elements like land ores. Compared to land mining, producing metals from deep-sea nodules has the potential to generate 70 percent less carbon dioxide emissions. The report also said polymetallic nodules had the capacity to hold six times more cobalt and triple as much nickel as found on land. They are also likely to be of a much higher grade.
    There are enormous amounts of polymetallic nodules on the sea bed and these have become a target for mining operations. However, best environmental practices, precautionary approaches and adaptive management are required to ensure the development of this resource.
    Work in progress
    The deep ocean is beyond the jurisdiction of countries and governed by an intergovernmental body called the International Seabed Authority (ISA). The ISA has already approved 28 mining contracts that will cover an area of more than a million sq km, said a report in The Revelator.
    The group is still working on standards and regulations for operations. After getting a go-ahead, companies will be mining potato-sized polymetallic nodules, seafloor massive sulphides and cobalt-rich crusts.
    Danger to the environment
    While proponents of deep-sea mining claim this to be the cleanest path toward electric vehicles, critics say harvesting these minerals could potentially cause irreversible damage to aquatic life.
    At present, fluid jet machines are used to pick up nodules from the deep-sea bed. These machines carve out 15 cm sea-bed sediment layer from which the unwanted sediments containing heavy metals are pumped back into the sea, smothering life beneath and burying an essential part of the food chain. As a result of such sea pollution, a significant amount of carbon is transferred back to the sea bed.
    “Going into a new habitat to potentially destroy it and reap the metals that will be used to move us away from climate change … well, we’re destroying one habitat to save another and not fixing the problem,” Dive Amon, an executive at the Deep Ocean Stewardship Initiative, told Discovery.
    Another cost of mining deep-sea beds is that it would destroy species that are yet unknown to mankind.
    According to a Guardian report, more than 90 percent of the nearly 2.2 million species in the ocean are yet to be described. One such species is the Casper, a ghostly white octopus which was discovered recently.
    “These spaces out in the high seas, which include undersea mountain ranges, are really quite biodiverse and they’re full of very unique species,” Douglas McCauley, Director of the Benioff Ocean Initiative at the University of California, told The Revelator.
    Are there alternatives?
    A way to navigate the problem is to look at other promising developments in battery technologies such as the use of cobalt.
    Cobalt is a stabilising component in lithium-ion batteries and new technologies are bringing down the amount of cobalt needed in making EV batteries. Earlier, batteries had an equal mix of nickel, manganese and cobalt in the cathode. This amount can be brought down with new technologies to 80 percent nickel, 10 percent manganese and 10 percent cobalt, The Revelator reported. Known as NMC 811, these EV batteries are already in use in China.
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