Metals & Mining News

Pacific Islands remain divided on deep-sea mining as trial begins to extract precious metals from ocean floor

Electric robots will soon be crawling along the sea floor and sucking up precious metals through a giant straw in a controversial trial to mine some of the ocean’s deepest, most pristine environments. 

Deep-sea mining operator The Metals Company has been granted approval by the International Seabed Authority to begin testing its collection system in Pacific waters.

It will be the first time since the 1970s that this has been allowed to occur.

Deep seabed mining companies want to collect deposits of minerals and precious metals that can be used in the production of products like smartphones and computers.

The Metals Company chief executive Gerard Barron told the ABC it was a very significant step towards deep-sea mining at a commercial scale.

“We’ll be mobilising in the coming days,” Mr Barron said.

One of the company’s vessels is now preparing to leave Mexico, while another is already surveying the lucrative mining zone located between Mexico and Hawaii.

“It’s a really exciting expedition,” Mr Barron said.

The mining company’s subsea collector will crawl along the seafloor, collecting nuggets of rock that contain rare-earth metals. (Supplied: The Metals Company)

The trial involves a robot that will crawl along the sea floor, collecting nuggets of rock that contain cobalt, nickel and other rare-earth metals used to make electric batteries.

These rocks will be sucked up to the water’s surface through a device called a riser.

“Think of that as a big, long straw,” Mr Barron said.

The company expects to collect around 3,600 tonnes of material between now and December.

Concerns over ecosystem disturbance

About 100 people, including scientists, will be on board another vessel, observing the environmental impact of the work.

Mr Barron urged people to not jump to conclusions about what those impacts may be.

“Our view is ‘can we just do the science’,” he said.

“The evidence that we’re seeing … is indicating that we can collect these rocks … at a fraction of the environmental and societal impacts compared to land-based alternatives.”

Mr Barron said rare metals collected from the seabed were essential in the transition to a carbon-neutral planet.

A large industrial ship in the Pacific.
The Metals Company says its approach is more environmentally sustainable than land-based mining alternatives. (Supplied: The Metals Company )

But some scientists argue the true risks of deep-sea mining are not fully understood.

Gavin Mudd, an associate professor of environmental engineering at RMIT University, said the ecosystems where mining would occur had taken centuries, or even millennia, to form.

“We’re dealing with a part of the ocean that has incredibly unique biodiversity. And we’re only just starting to understand that,” Dr Mudd said.

“I think there are real concerns around any disturbance of deep-sea ecosystem like this.”

Dr Mudd said the environmental impacts should be monitored over decades.

“That’s often not the way that regulators and companies approach things,” he said.

“They do a trial for a short time, and then they extrapolate.” 

A seabed nodule being held and sprayed in a laboratory setting.
Nodules collected from the seabed can contain essential battery metals. (Supplied: The Metals Company)

‘We’re not dealing with equatorial rainforests’ 

Mr Barron said environmental monitoring would take place over decades, but expressed urgency to push forward with extraction.

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