The race for the obtaining of critical or strategically important minerals such as cobalt, lithium and rare earths, among others, very scarce in Europe and keys in the technological development and the green energy, has reached the sea. For the moment, it is about knowing where submarine reserves may exist and what their potential is, because in 2030 10% of all the minerals that will be extracted in the world will come from the bottom of salty waters, experts estimate.
"It will be able to meet the demand for cobalt, copper or zinc, some of the minerals most coveted by new technologies and in which Europe is deficient," explains Javier González, a marine geology researcher at the Mining Geological Institute of Spain (IGME) and responsible for MINDeSEA international project, financed by the European Union, which studies the main resources in the seas of the continent. To this end, the first map of possible deposits of cobalt and lithium in the European sea depths has been drawn up.
The researchers, from Spain, Portugal, Germany, Ukraine, Sweden, the United States and Russia, have compiled all the available information, the result of years of research. They have grouped it in this "living" map, to which other materials such as vanadium, tellurium and rare earths will be added, among others. "It is still preliminary, more studies are needed, but the results indicate that there is a potential in these areas," says González.
This first mapping reveals a total of 216 points of possible cobalt and 157 of lithium and cobalt, 25 and four of them in Spanish territory, respectively. Numerous scab deposits have been discovered and mapped (accumulations of iron oxide and manganese that form a kind of pavement in the sea bed) rich in cobalt in the seamounts and ridges of the Macaronesia area (Portugal and Spain). The Norwegian Sea, the Barents Sea, the Arctic Ocean, the Iberian margins and the western Mediterranean Sea show other possible deposits. Currently, the Democratic Republic of Congo Cup production with 60% of the total.
One of the problems of the boom in demand for this type of minerals is the violation of human rights and the lack of environmental control in some countries where the largest reserves are located. Amnesty International revealed in 2016 that up to 16 well-known manufacturers of telephones and cars were supplying illegal cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where children worked as slaves.
On January 1, 2021, the regulation on minerals from conflict zones will come into force in the EU, which aims to stop trade in four minerals: tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold, "which are sometimes extracted through forced labor or they are used to finance armed conflicts. " Importers should indicate from which country the minerals come, the quantities imported and when they were extracted. The United States also has legislation on the same minerals: Article 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010.
Regarding lithium, no important reserves have been located "to be considered". The indications of this mineral that some call the "white oil" appear in the Baltic Sea, the Barents Sea, the Kara Sea, the Iberian margins and the Black and Tyrrhenian Sea have the greatest potential. It is found in nodules, forming a kind of field of mineral potatoes deposited in the abyssal plains and the summits of the seamounts.
The Lithium is the base element of mobile device batteries and in those of electric cars and is also used in the production of lubricants and glass and ceramics. Today it is extracted from large deposits of salts found, for example, in Chile, Bolivia, Brazil or Argentina.
They have started from these two minerals because "the EU is very interested in them for ion batteries," says Gonzalez. The rise of electric vehicles is increasingly apparent. The International Energy Agency estimated that in 2030 will circulate 125 million electric cars.
"The mineral deposits of the seabed represent the most important and least explored resource of critical elements and basic metals in the planet", explains González. But its extraction is still very complicated. It is a technology that is taking its first steps. "Even if we put a potential submarine mine here in the Canary Islands, a boat will not go tomorrow to take it out," he says as an example.
In the world there is no high depth mining, there is only one project to exploit a gold and copper deposit at 1,600 meters depth in the waters of Papua New Guinea, of the Nautilus Minerals, based in Toronto. "The mining vessel and the extraction robots have already been built. It could start next year, but it's not safe, "says the researcher. Japan has developed a pilot sulfur extraction project similar to that of Papua with success this year.
Oceanographic campaigns that dissect the geology and morphology of the seabed are found behind the data that indicate the existence of minerals at great depths. "We use the unmanned mini-submarines (ROV), which take images and geological data up to 6,000 meters deep, as well as dredgers, a small network with a metallic mouth that can take samples from the bottom," the scientist describes. So they know the relief, if there are mountains, valleys or plains, and what comes out to the surface. To eviscerate what is below, they use geophysical exploration methods. They throw a wave (acoustic signal) to the seabed that bounces back to the ship. "That way we can see what the architecture of the sediments is."
The result of one of the expeditions carried out in 2016 by the Oceanographic Center of the United Kingdom (NOC) together with the IGME, a potential deposit of 2,670 tons of tellurium was located in Tropic. This underwater mountain rises to 3,000 meters in height, has a flat summit 1,100 meters deep and is located about 250 nautical miles southwest of the island of El Hierro. It took 16 dives of the unmanned submarine and 360,000 photographs were taken. Tellurium is a great conductor that is used for wind turbine lining, solar panels or smartphones.