If there is one thing you can say about the recycling industry, it is that it is unpredictable. This goes for most industries, really, because there is almost nothing we can’t do these days. Multi-million R&D projects everywhere are turning fiction into reality. But innovation doesn’t always make sense.
The American company DeepGreen Metals is at the forefront of a new method to extract the metals used for batteries from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. The news made me do a double take. I’ve been writing about battery market trends and recycling for ten years, and I thought there wasn’t much more to me than surprise. It looks like tech companies still have some tricks up their sleeve.
The estimated raw materials that could be harvested in the exploration areas targeted by DeepGreen could power around 280 million electric vehicles. This represents a quarter of the world’s automobile fleet. Meanwhile, massive deficits are forecast for the battery metals sector after 2025. A 30-40% gap between demand and supply is cited for copper and nickel by 2030.
DeepGreen seeks to salvage what are known as polymetallic nodules that are found on the seabed, which means there is no need for drilling and blasting. Microporous nodules have formed over millions of years as a result of the absorption of metals from water. They contain high levels of copper, cobalt, manganese and nickel with few dangerous elements. From 2 to 10 cm in diameter, they are very easy to handle and to melt.
How it works? The nodules rise in a specially designed riser system to DeepGreen’s production vessel where they are separated from water and sediment. The unwanted material is then returned under the photic zone to a depth scientifically chosen to have minimal impact. A management system, described as a mix of marine hardware and cloud-based artificial intelligence, creates a virtual replica of the underwater environment, “giving operators eyes and ears”.
“It’s the cleanest path to electric mobility,” says the company. He emphasizes that “the production of metals from nodules generates 99% less solid waste without toxic residues” while generating 75% less CO2 than ores from land mines.
The perks list reminds me of the Monty Python song ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ (which I like to quote whenever I can). What bothers me when I read such seemingly exciting news is that it completely ignores the recycling potential of existing products. Why mine battery metals in the middle of the ocean when you can activate the urban mine? Have we forgotten that it exists all around us?
There are so many second-hand laptops, phones, cameras, and other devices lying around. It seems a terrible waste not to focus on improving existing collection and sorting systems – alongside smarter product design – before replacing traditional mining with exotic alternatives under a more sophisticated name. I’m also curious about the possible impact on marine life and waste generation during these remote activities (where there are people, there is pollution).
Greenpeace raised the same questions in a recent item. The organization describes this large-scale marine mining enterprise as a “monster machine built for profit” that could very well cause “serious and irreversible damage to Earth’s largest ecosystem.”
Ultimately, it was the linear approach to products and resources that got us into this situation. If you ask me, I would vote to put more money into advanced recycling technology and to set up battery recycling malls. That way, we’ll really appreciate the inherent value of scrap metal and recycling – not as a side project or offbeat, but as a main act.
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