Deep-sea Mining for Building EV Batteries

  • IASbaba
  • November 16, 2021
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  • GS-3: Environmental Conservation
  • GS-3: Indian Economy and issues relating to planning, mobilization, of resources, growth, development and employment. 

Deep-sea Mining for Building EV Batteries

Context: There is a growing concern on whether deep-sea mining for building electric vehicles is a sustainable approach or an invitation to another catastrophe? 

Almost 70% of our planet is an ocean and of that, 90% is the deep sea. It houses countless species ranging from minuscule zooplankton to the heaviest whales. This combination supports in maintaining the ecological cycle of our planet. 

However, human interferences have even reached that depth to disturb its peaceful state.

Mining investors are eying metals they can extract from the sea bed to build electric vehicle (EV) batteries. These talks are at their incipient stages but slowly making headlines. 

Deep Sea mining & E-Vehicles – A cause of concern

  • Rise in demand of E-Vehicles: The proponents of deep-sea mining claim that building EV batteries requires minerals such as cobalt, lithium, nickel, copper, vanadium and indium. Demand for these minerals will skyrocket with the rising demand for EVs. 
  • Sea offers alternative to Land minerals: The increased demand will put pressure on the existing land mineral ores, so there is a need to identify alternative sources to extract these minerals. Mineral deposited in deep sea, which can be extracted by deep sea mining technologies, can be this alternative source.
  • Consequences on Marine Ecosystem: However, deep-sea mining may potentially cause irreversible damage to aquatic life. 
    • So far, fluid jets are the most experimented machines for deep-sea mining that picks up nodules (a potato-size rock full of minerals required for EV batteries and takes millions of years to develop), along with a 15 centimetres sea-bed sediment layer. 
    • The unwanted sediments containing heavy metals are pumped back into the sea, creating sea pollution that can choke jellyfish and other species that transfer a significant amount of carbon back to the sea bed. 
    • There is also a possibility that we can lose species before even knowing that they exist. 

Deep Sea mining & E-Vehicles – An Opportunity

  • Reduces Batteries Cost: The market competition between land based mining and deep sea mining will foster innovation & also increases the supply in the market, thereby bringing down the cost of batteries & making Electric Vehicles affordable to common man.
  • Reduced Child Labour associated with Land Mining: A strategic claim made by the proponents of deep-sea mining is that it is a greener option than land-based mining and can significantly reduce child labour in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where abundant mineral mining sites are present

Also, the increasing demand for battery minerals will be moderated by following factors and hence the impact of deep sea mining on marine ecosystem is inflated:

  • Technological advancements in battery chemistry: Many projections assume use of current lithium-ion battery technology (incorporating cobalt and nickel) will continue despite the available and in-development alternatives of cobalt-free lithium-ion batteries such as lithium-iron-phosphate batteries. 
    • For example, Tesla’s EV battery requires neither cobalt or phosphate. General Motors in 2020 unveiled their battery system that uses 70 per cent less cobalt than current batteries. 
  • Advancements in Battery recycling: Simultaneously, the automobile sector is gearing up to invest in battery mineral recycling which will further reduce the future mineral demand. Battery recycling could reduce lithium demand by 25 per cent, cobalt by 35 per cent as well as nickel and copper by 55 per cent by 2040, according to the Institute of Sustainable Futures. 
    • China is leading this race with plans to set up a $5 billion recycling plant in Hubei province. Swedish startup Northvolt, a Volkswagen and BMW partner, plans to recycle 25,000 tonnes of batteries per year. 
    • The European Commission aims to cut down demand by 12 per cent for lithium, 4 per cent for cobalt and 4 per cent for nickel through battery recycling. 
  • Investment in public transport infrastructure: The future demand for minerals will also depend on the modal share of countries. In countries where governments bring down private motorised vehicle share by investing in and improving existing public transportation as well as implementing vehicle restraint measures, the demand for EV batteries will also be less. 

Way Ahead

  • We know there is a cost to both land and deep-sea mining. The former is known to cause severe environmental problems such as soil erosion, loss of biodiversity and pollution but the latter may also cause catastrophic disturbances in the deep sea, and a lot is yet to be known. 
  • However, we need to optimise the need for minerals in the first place
    • We should plan our cities where trips are more local in nature and can be made by walking and cycling so that there is little need to use a private electric car and hence, lower requirements of EV batteries.
    • Even if one goes for longer trips, we need to make sure that we have developed electricity-based public transportation for such purposes.
  • The developed and developing world assist the Democratic Republic of the Congo to eradicate child labor by questioning the origin of imported substances and boycotting them if child labour is involved in their production
  • We have just one planet and within this, we need to decide whether we should go ahead with our traditional approach of exploring, exploiting, depleting and then repeating or finding a more sustainable way out

Connecting the dots:

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