Seabed mining equipment / Patania

Why the U.S. is missing out on the race to mine trillions of dollars worth of metals from the ocean floor

Rare earth elements and metals used in cell phones, supercomputers and more are sitting on the ocean floor, ready to be mined by multiple countries. So why is the U.S. on the sidelines?

Picture a lump of rock about the size of a potato. Now pack it with some of the most valuable metals on earth, like nickel, cobalt, and other minerals known as rare earth elements. There are trillions of these nodules, that's what they're called, just waiting to be picked up. The problem is they're on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. The nodules were discovered more than a century ago. Now new technology has triggered a fierce competition to go get them. These metals are critical for modern life: cell phones, electric cars, and supercomputers. Nineteen countries, including China and Russia, have already jumped into the deep. But the one country on the sidelines? The United States. More on that in a moment, but first, we wanted to take a look at this new frontier.

The Maersk Launcher

Our adventure began at three in the morning. Loading up our tugboat, we pulled out of San Diego. The harbor lights sank quickly behind us. Ten hours later we were cutting through the chop of the Pacific, with nothing to see but the tossing ocean. So it wasn't hard to spot the Maersk Launcher, a 300-foot mining research vessel, that we'd come to join. All we had to do was get on board. While the launcher dangled a rope ladder above us, the tugboat backed in. With swells over ten feet, timing was everything. At the top of the wave, we took a leap of faith and landed in the new world of deep sea mining.

We were travelling with Gerard Barron, the CEO of Canadian company DeepGreen Metals. He was eager to catch up with the launcher's crew. They'd been at sea for five weeks on a test run, mapping the seafloor, and fishing for nodules. This was the sunken treasure we had come to see.

Bill Whitaker: So what makes them so valuable? What's is in that?

Gerard Barron: Well, that is a electric vehicle battery in a rock.

Bill Whitaker: It looks like a lump of charcoal. (LAUGH)

Gerard Barron: It does. But it's a beautiful lump of-- lump of nodule. The amazing thing is it's filled with nickel and cobalt and copper and manganese. And that's everything we need to build a battery.

To get the nodules, the crew hoists a three-ton rig called a box core over the side. Plunging into the ocean, it begins its three-mile descent to the sea floor. Hours later, it neared the bottom. It felt like watching a new lunar landing.

Nodules on the ocean floor

And there they were. Giant fields of nodules covering an alien landscape. Millions of years old, the nodules grow by absorbing metals from the seawater, expanding slowly around a core of shell, bone or rock. The potential is staggering, estimates of their worth run from $8 to more than $16 trillion.

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