As usual, John Oliver brought his signature brand of thoughtful and irreverent comedy on the June 13 episode of “Last Week Tonight.” This time, the main topic was deep sea mining (DSM). We were happy to see DSM covered in this format, bringing the topic to a broader audience. We agree on many of the points covered, primarily centered on the need to protect the seafloor ecosystem for its own sake and for the benefit of future generations. In this blog, we’d like to dive deeper into two key points:

  1. The impact of DSM
  2. The need for critical minerals found in nodules

The Impact of DSM

Oliver spoke at length about the impacts of deep sea mining using crawler and riser systems, which were initially developed and tested in the 1970s, with a focus on the sediment plumes at the seafloor and the mid-water plume, as well as the destruction of the nodule habitat and associated life. We couldn’t agree more, and this assessment of impacts is precisely the reason Impossible Metals was created. Our team is making quick progress on an entirely different nodule harvesting architecture called selective harvesting, where specialized autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs):

  • Hover over the seafloor (no tracks, no downward thrusters disturbing sediment)
  • Use computer vision and AI (artificial intelligence) to identify nodules containing life
  • Employ robotic arms to pick up nodules one-by-one (only the claw tips touch the sediment)
  • Avoid disturbing visible life and can be programmed to leave behind a pattern/percentage of nodules (we recognize the importance of nodules as part of the ecosystem)
  • Return to the surface with their payload before starting their next mission (no riser pipe and no return plume)

This animation shows the difference between the 1970s technology and Impossible Metals’ carefully thought-out, cutting-edge technology.

The segment also discussed the role of the ecosystem, from its important role in the carbon cycle to the potential for medical treatments derived from yet-undiscovered deep-sea species. Our company’s purpose is to protect these important aspects of the deep sea while obtaining the metals we need to pursue a low-carbon future globally.

The Need for Critical Minerals Found in Nodules

Part of Oliver’s piece looked at the changing landscape of battery chemistries, including the example of sodium-ion, which is currently in development. Additionally, as Oliver stated, progress is being made in battery recycling. Impossible Metals is following and supporting all developments in batteries and recycling that bring us closer to achieving the global switch from fossil fuels to electricity and eventually is a closed-loop system of materials.

Even with these innovations, the need for critical minerals like nickel, copper, and cobalt may be more than you think. Each battery chemistry has its pros and cons. Nickel-rich batteries (NMC/NCA) have a higher energy density (go farther on a charge). In contrast, iron-based batteries (LFP/LMFP) may have a longer life cycle (battery replacement less often). (Check out our February 2024 blog for a more detailed discussion.) It’s likely that no one chemistry will be the “winner,” but rather, we’ll need to use different chemistries in different applications.

What’s clear is that a lot more minerals are required to support decarbonization efforts. The International Energy Agency identified that by 2040, the world will need 2x the amount of critical minerals to achieve stated decarbonization policies under the Paris Agreement (as compared to 2020). To achieve net zero, that amount increases to 6x. Further, the World Bank Group identified that even reaching 100% recycling will not make up this deficit and that an influx of new materials is required before we can get to a place of circularity. 

According to estimates, by 2035, 384 new mines will be required to meet the projected demand. With new mines now taking almost 18 years to complete, you can see that building that many new mines just doesn’t compute. Not to mention the environmental and human impacts that are increasingly (and rightfully) becoming unacceptable, including mining injuries and death, child labor, people displacement, deforestation, biodiversity loss, high Co2 emissions, toxic waste tailings, and water scarcity.

The Future

There are many people working on the challenge of decarbonization—from national policies to recycling each part of batteries. Impossible Metals is working to be part of the solution—providing a responsible method for gathering critical minerals so we can move away from fossil fuels. As humanity moves forward with evaluating deep sea mining, we need robust regulations and technological innovation. We’re with you, John.