The Metals Company uses a former oil-drilling vessel, the Hidden Gem, to collect polymetallic nodules from the seafloor. COURTESY OF RICHARD BARON/TMC

World - The Mining Industry's Next Frontier Is Deep, Deep Under the Sea

Companies are diving to the bottom to scoop up metals essential for our EV-driven future. But how much ocean are we willing to sacrifice?

IN OCTOBER OF last year, an enormous new creature appeared on the seabed of the Pacific Ocean, about 1,400 miles southwest of San Diego. It was a remote-controlled, 90-ton machine the size of a small house, lowered from an industrial ship on a cable nearly 3 miles long. Once it was settled on the ocean floor, the black, white, and Tonka-truck-yellow contraption began grinding its way forward, its lights lancing through the darkness, steel treads biting into the silt. A battery of water jets mounted on its front end blasted away at the seafloor, stirring up billowing clouds of muck and dislodging hundreds of fist-sized black rocks that lay half-buried in the sediment.

The jets propelled the lumpy stones into an intake at the front of the vehicle, where they rattled into a steel pipe rising all the way back up to the ship. Air compressors pushed the rocks up in a column of seawater and sediment and into a shipboard centrifuge that spun away most of the water. Conveyor belts then carried the rocks to a metal ramp that dropped them with a clatter into the ship’s hold. From a windowless control room nearby, a team of engineers in blue and orange coveralls monitored the operation, their faces lit by the polychromatic glow from a hodgepodge of screens.

The ship, called the Hidden Gem, was a former oil-drilling vessel nearly 800 feet long, retrofitted for sea mining by the Metals Company, an international firm officially headquartered in Canada. This was the first test of its system to collect the ancient black stones. They are officially known as polymetallic nodules, but the Metals Company’s CEO, Gerard Barron, likes to call them “batteries in a rock.” That’s because the stones happen to be packed with metals that are essential for manufacturing electric cars—a market that is surging worldwide. Barron’s company is at the front of a pack of more than a dozen enterprises slavering over the billions of dollars that could be reaped from those little subsea rocks.

The world’s long-overdue, fitful transition to renewable energy is hobbled by an Achilles’ heel: It requires staggering quantities of natural resources. Manufacturing enough electric vehicles to replace their fossil-fueled counterparts will require billions of tons of cobalt, lithium, copper, and other metals. To meet the exploding demand, mining companies, carmakers, and governments are scouring the planet for potential mines or expanding existing ones, from the deserts of Chile to the rain forests of Indonesia. Meanwhile, what might be the richest source of all—the ocean floor—remains untapped. The US Geological Survey estimates that 21 billion tons of polymetallic nodules lie in a single region of the Pacific, containing more of some metals (such as nickel and cobalt) than can be found in all the world’s dryland deposits.

“Here’s one of them,” Barron said when we met recently in the lobby of a chic Toronto hotel, as he casually pulled one of these geologic oddities out of his jacket pocket and handed it to me. Barron is a fit, muscular Australian in his mid-fifties, with swept-back dark hair, a nautical beard, and craggy Kurt Russell-esque looks. His jeans, black boots, and wristloads of leather bracelets lend him a roguish air. He has just flown in from London for a big mining conference. For years, he’s been traveling the world to talk up deep-sea mining to investors and government officials. He and other would-be sea miners argue that collecting nodules from the deep will be not only cheaper than traditional mining but also gentler on the planet. No rain forests uprooted, no Indigenous peoples displaced, no toxic tailings poisoning rivers.



Vince Beiser (@vincebeiser) is the author of The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How it Transformed Civilization. His last feature for WIRED, in issue 29.03, was about a $500 billion biofuel scam.


Barron may finally be on the brink of achieving his goal of mega-scale mining on the ocean floor. The Metals Company has tens of millions of dollars in the bank and partnerships with major maritime companies. The Hidden Gem’s foray last October marked the first time since the 1970s that any company had successfully trialed a complete system for harvesting nodules.

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