- Polymetallic nodules present in the deep-sea bed contain nickel and cobalt among other metals that are vital for the production of batteries needed to power electric vehicles. The demand for these metals has increased, in order to meet net-zero targets.
- India’s deep-sea mining machine Varaha-1, engineered at the National Institute of Ocean Technology, successfully completed a field test at 5,270 metres in the Central Indian Ocean.
- This is an exploration test and commercial mining would begin only when the UN-affiliated International Seabed Authority (ISA) comes up with a mining code accepted by all parties, including India.
- Several countries, companies, NGOs, coalitions and environmentalists are against deep-sea mining, citing possible negative impacts on marine biodiversity. But the ISA has recently granted permission for a commercial company to begin mining trials in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) in the Pacific Ocean.
In April 2021, Cdr. Gopakumar K. and his colleagues from the National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT) reached the central Indian Ocean with Varaha-1, a deep-sea mining machine. The 9.5-tonne machine was carefully lowered into the ocean waters using a high strength umbilical cable. It weighs 3.5 tonnes in the water due to the buoyancy. The test spot has a depth of about 5,200-5,300 metres. The sea conditions were calm. At sea however, the conditions can change with little notice, making this attempt challenging. The descent of the mining machine to the seabed generally takes about 3.5-4 hours.
This spot, where the large machine was lowered, is part of the 75,000 sq. km. area (about 50 times the size of the National Capital Territory of Delhi) in the Central Indian Ocean, allocated to India by the International Seabed Authority (ISA), for conducting exploratory deep-seabed mining. Varaha-1, designed and engineered at NIOT, reached a depth of 5,270 metres to mine polymetallic nodules from the seabed as part of a test. The objective of this attempt was to test all the functionalities of Varaha -1. The test objective was met, and the design validated in the field trials. Gopakumar and his team returned with confidence and are preparing for the next stage of testing and system development.
What are polymetallic nodules and what is the need to mine them?
The sea, on the surface, can appear vast, yet monotonous to a regular human’s eye. But fascinating new species are being discovered every day and new uses of ocean resources are being experimented. The ocean bed has tonnes of potato-sized rocks formed over millions of years, called polymetallic nodules. These nodules contain nickel and cobalt among other metals, that are vital for the production of batteries needed to power electric vehicles. In the pathway to get to net-zero and phase out fossil fuels, attaining electric vehicle (EV) targets have become a priority for all the countries. This in turn, has increased the demand for metals like nickel and cobalt.
“The world’s appetite for cobalt and nickel has gone up. The onshore mining possibilities for these metals are shrinking and there is also turmoil in the Democratic Republic of Congo at present, which is the known source of cobalt on land. However, even these resources are not adequate to meet the huge demand for cobalt to service the enormous demand of EVs that are envisaged in meeting our climate change goals. Polymetallic nodules, rich in copper, cobalt and nickel, thus become the alternate source of abundance,” explains Gopakumar, lead of the Varaha-1 engineering project at NIOT.
“An estimate indicates about 380 million metric tonnes (MMT) of nodules are available on the seabed, in the area allocated to India. Even if we can mine three MMT per year for 20 years, which brings it up to 60 MMT, it’s only one-sixth of the total available nodules,” G. A. Ramadass, Director of NIOT, tells Mongabay-India, painting a picture of the abundance of this resource. “Mapping the resources and mining them sustainably would help us meet our battery needs,” he adds.
A push from the Deep Ocean Mission by the Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES) at an estimated cost of Rs. 4,077.0 crores (Rs. 40.77 billion) to support the Blue Economy Initiatives, has deep sea mining as one of the important components. “An Integrated Mining System will be also developed for mining Polymetallic Nodules from 6,000 m depth in the central Indian Ocean. The exploration studies of minerals will pave the way for commercial exploitation in the near future, as and when commercial exploitation code is evolved by the International Seabed Authority,” reads the Deep Ocean Mission plan on the MoES website. A video published by MoES that shows the development of Varaha-1, also stresses that eco-friendly exploitation of resources is its objective.
When the ISA (made up of 167 member states including India) comes up with a mining code for commercial exploitation, for the first time ever in human history, machines would move on the seabed, sucking up these polymetallic nodules and transporting them to the surface. Metals from these nodules would be extracted and used for EV batteries. It has taken decades of research, negotiations and regulations to get here.
Varaha-1 began its journey in 2010 and the research and data collection began even earlier, in 1994, by the scientists of National Institute of Oceanography. Now, the future of mining doesn’t look uncanny, as the ISA granted an approval in September 2022, for a mining trial to commence in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) in the Pacific Ocean. The UN-affiliated intergovernmental body responsible for both overseeing mining in international waters and for protecting the deep sea, granted permission for test mining trials in the vast abyssal with rich biodiversity. The company undertaking these trials, expects to apply for its exploitation license next year and if approved by the ISA, to begin mining without further delay.
While this milestone signals progress in deep sea mining efforts, environmentalists, NGOs and some companies are countries are against deep-sea mining, citing possible negative impacts on marine biodiversity.
The sustainability paradox
“We’ve mapped more of Mars than our own planet’s deep sea!” say ecologists in favour of a moratorium on deep sea mining. They worry that with so many unknowns about the deep sea, we cannot predict the possible impacts of mining on marine biodiversity and the carbon cycle. “There is a reckless and an irresponsible rush to allow commercial deep-sea mining without understanding its implications fully,” Emma Wilson, Advocacy Programme Officer, Deep Sea Conservation Coalition (DSCC), an alliance of organisations working to promote the conservation of biodiversity on the high seas, tells Mongabay-India. DSCC has an ‘observer’ status at the ISA meetings.
Mining machines like Varaha-1 will move on the seafloor, collecting the nodules along with some soil, a quantity of around 40-50 kilograms per second, and push these nodules via riser pipes, all the way up to the top to the vessel (ship). After the metallic rocks are separated, the remaining water and sediments will be released back into the ocean at a different depth, below the photic zone (the part of the ocean that receives sunlight, thereby allowing phytoplankton to perform photosynthesis).
This mechanism is what worries those in favour of the moratorium.
“If the sediment plumes are released at a different depth, the sunlight is restricted to some depths. This will affect the phytoplankton, zooplankton and some midwater fauna. Therefore, we are advising the mining designers to release sediment plumes closer to the seabed, to mitigate the environmental impact,” shares Nagender Nath, former Chief Scientist at the National Institute of Oceanography, who has been studying marine minerals and specialising in marine geology for decades.
“Polymetallic nodules are critical for food-web integrity and that their absence will likely result in reduced local benthic biodiversity,” finds a 2021 study published in Nature. Thus, the question arises, is mining for the purpose of clean energy, while leaving an impact on the marine environment, really sustainable?
Measuring the impact of mining on deep sea ecosystems
What are the likely environmental impacts of deep-sea mining? Rahul Sharma, former Chief Scientist at NIO, Goa, with 40 years’ experience in the field of exploration and exploitation of deep-sea minerals answers, “On the seabed, there could be mortality of organisms along the collector track. The potential impact due to discharge of tailings (plumes) at mid-water depths could range from the mortality of zooplankton, depletion of oxygen by bacterial growth on suspended particles and effects on fish behaviour and mortality caused by the sediments or trace metals, to impacts on deep-diving mammals. The surface discharge and movement of vessels could also have effects on marine mammals due to noise, oil spills and waste disposal.”
The group of scientists who worked on environmental assessments in the central Indian Ocean, conducted baseline studies in the nodule areas and has created an extensive database for the central Indian Ocean. They have conducted experiments to understand the deep sea before and after a disturbance is created. Sharma’s study published earlier this year, says that a reduction in biomass was noticed after the disturbance but, “subsequent monitoring over a period of 8 years showed that restoration and recolonisation process had started and that the initial impacts were getting masked by natural variability in the environmental conditions.”
More studies are coming up around the world, demonstrating the negative environmental impacts of deep-sea mining. Noise pollution from the activity is said to impact the marine ecosystem. A 2018 study that assessed a previously ploughed (mined) area found that, even 26 years after a small-scale sediment disturbance, the carbon stock present in the area that was not ploughed for nodules, was higher than the ploughed track. Another 2022 study states that it is essential to first close the scientific gaps related to deep-seabed mining to prevent serious harm.
“We need more studies, and we need time for this. Until then, a moratorium is needed. We must first learn about the deep sea before we study mining impacts. The deep sea plays a crucial role in climate regulation, which we are yet to understand fully. It’s important to pursue this knowledge for the sake of knowledge and not for the sake of exploitation. A big lesson we’ve learned from land-based mining is that the extractive industries have many unanticipated risks. Before opening up the largest mining operation in the history of humankind it is important to explore alternatives,” Wilson asserts.
The negotiations at ISA are ongoing and the authority is yet to come up with all the regulations and a code. However, there are complaints about the lack of transparency in ISA. The New York Times published an investigative story which revealed that a commercial company’s executives received confidential information from the ISA in 2007 about important mining areas. “Apart from the lack of transparency, the voting structure at the ISA is also weighted in favour of mining. There is still a lot of disagreement among countries and parties,” shares Wilson.
Balancing energy needs and biodiversity conservation
With a heavy dependence on polymetallic nodules to steer a green energy revolution, and many countries and environmental NGOs calling on a moratorium, it’s unclear what the next steps for commercial mining look like in India.
“Efforts should be made for sustainable mining. This is one form of deposit where before even mining has begun for economic purposes, the regulations at the international level are strict. Even for exploratory mining/ testing the guidelines were strict. ‘Common heritage to humankind’, is the principle we need to operate with, and all the world nations have a share in these minerals,” Nath asserts.
“We have to decide whether we can meet our future requirements with available resources which are also getting exhausted very fast, or look for new resources, especially those that can contribute towards green energy. Any developmental activity has its impact on the environment, but it is upto us to find ways of balancing the requirement of mankind with environmental conservation. The ingenuity of the human mind is capable of finding solutions to every problem and that is how we have evolved and reached where we are,” concludes Sharma.
Banner image: The deep-sea mining machine Varaha-1 lowered into the central Indian Ocean. Photo from the National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT).