A New Source – Deep Sea Mining

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Written by DrPGx

Hi, this is Dr. Paul Jackson, PharmD. Clinical, Consultant, and Integrative Pharmacist.


On my quest to understand more about where the products we use on the daily are sourced from I came across an interesting find that is attempting to solve an ethical and environmental issue in a very unique way. The new concept, that has finally had its first tried and true test run, is Deep Sea Mining. With the new sustainability goals much of the world has set there are wild projections that show the need for these metals to be ever increasing. There is a finite amount of these resources, but most of our sourcing has only been from land-based operations and some recycling efforts, aside from crude oil, which is used for making petroleum-based plastics that tend to house these electronic products.

In simple, the deep sea mining operations are using a collector that is on the seabed that is some thousands of meters below the aphotic zone (without light) which collects a special rock called a polymetallic nodule (think of a fossil that collects metal over time), is pumped up to the ship, washed, and the controversial discharge is released below the aphotic zone in order to not disturb the light diminishing properties it has. These deep sea mining operations have several goals but when focused on polymetallic nodules, they are trying to find manganese, cobalt, nickel, copper, and molybdenum. Cobalt is used for rechargeable batteries, nickel for stainless steel and batteries too, copper for wiring and electronics, manganese is for steel production, and molybdenum is used for wiring, diodes, and semiconductors.

Now to address the elephant sized plume in the room. The environmental impact would be on sea life, sea structures, resources consumed to mine the products do not yield a significant amount for end use production (net loss), and possibly some unforeseeable effect on our lives through these damages. The positives would be a decrease on the dependence on child labor in foreign countries for these metals, possibly less chemicals leaching into the environment during the mining process, a vast amount of sea beds compared to its land counterparts, economic growth for smaller island countries, and a way to stop future mining operations from consuming too much resources for future generations and to stop the destruction of terrestrial land and species. There is research being done on this subject seriously since the early 21st century and most recently along side these new pilot projects that shall give us better perspectives towards the environmental impact. When weighing the two options, it is clear that our high standards for independence from oil will have an environmental cost associated with this shift, and consequently, if the net yield is great enough, it can protect children and more valuable land-based resources. The massive concern I have from my studies, and I have yet to find this, is the impact on the algae and oxygen cycles that are one of the most important to our wellbeing. I would hope being in the zone which does not have light, there would be little effect, and if so, then that is even better news for this new system. A simple compromise to help the biologists is to tag along with these ships and have an authority such as the International Seabed Authority (ISA) to have research vessels paired and funded via the rights and amount of work done by these deep sea mining ventures. The amount of knowledge we have about our seas is extremely limited and this could be a method to truly start serious funding and efforts towards understanding it, since it is so slow for such a vast, yet close, part of our full environment. Secondly, I do wish to emphasize, if there is a capacity placed on the number of ships, type of debris, and amount displaced per season, there should be little impact. Sometimes we are not able to understand scale, but the sea beds that are going to be used are truly enormous. Yes, there will be less environmentally concerned countries that will try to secure rights, but so long as the ISA limits them, there should be an answer to deep sea bed mining within a decade to its true viability, without it being alarming.

In conclusion, deep sea mining should be a topic we are all aware of as consumers and caretakers of so much electronics, and the waste they produce. As responsible individuals, we need to know the sources of our electronics, raise questions, study impacts, defend the weak, pay for and support more ethically sources materials, and always stay innovating so we can avoid pitfalls and overcome more hurdles in the future. We should have more answers, breakthrough studies, and innovations happening within the next 10 years. Due to our levels of consumption when it comes to these products (such as Samsung Galaxy Watch [affiliate link]), we are fully responsible to help those who have less, our future generations, and to objectively realize we will have to make hard decisions on resource sources that will have a negative impact to someone or something down the line. Just choose the best of these means in the future that do not sacrifice too much on one side, and to always love our neighbors as ourselves.

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