The Role of Ocean-borne Minerals and Metals in Clean Energy Production

Mitigating the effects of human-induced climate change has surged the further development of clean energy sources with the goal of reducing reliance on fossil fuels: wind turbines for power generation, electric vehicles, solar energy to drive our homes, green and blue economy initiatives, and more.

In 2016, the power sector become the principal destination for global investment in energy supply for the first time, according to World Energy Outlook 2018 by the International Energy Agency. In 2017, global investment in electricity generation, networks and storage reached USD750 billion, 5 percent more than investment in oil and gas. While this reflects the fall in spending on hydrocarbon projects, it also points to a longer-term shift in investment towards electricity and clean energy technologies.

The rise of clean energy technologies is leading to significant demand for aluminium, copper, lead, cobalt, lithium, manganese, nickel, silver, iron ore, zinc and other metals.  At the end of 2018, demand for metals and minerals is outpacing current supply. It is estimated that the world’s consumption of copper over the next 10 years will exceed all of the copper metal that has been mined throughout the world to date.

A single 2-megawatt wind turbine requires between 4 and 6 tonnes of copper to manufacture. Wind power – which also requires significant quantities of manganese, nickel and molybdenum – needs significantly more metal than conventional power generation (nuclear, coal or hydro).

The growth in electric vehicles represents a level of demand for lithium and cobalt that is considerably higher than today’s supply. Our changing lifestyles are a major contributor of demand due to our reliance on smart phones, computers, televisions and other home comforts. With an ever-increasing global population and the growth of emerging economies, recycled metals – such as copper and cobalt – will be unable to meet demand, requiring new reserves to be found and mined.

Mining companies are increasingly looking to the oceans to provide answers to meet that demand. Exploration of the sea floor for deposits of high-grade minerals – such as gold, zinc, copper, nickel and manganese – is helped by technological advances making what was once inaccessible accessible.

The results are proving positive. Solwara One, for example, in Papua New Guinea is extracting minerals that are up to 10 times higher grade than land-based deposits, according to experts. Similar grade differences have been reported for other minerals with polymetallic nodule explorers claiming that the grades of nickel, cobalt, copper, manganese and molybdenum from a single sea-floor nodule rival those of 3 land-based mines.

Ocean resources will play a valuable role in the future direction of global energy production.