India in undersea race to mine world’s battery metal

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Indian deep ocean exploration vehicle under development as part of Samudrayaan (Ocean Craft) program a part of deep ocean mission, seen on December 22, 2022 at the National Institute Of Ocean Technology Institute, Chennai, India.Image source, Getty Images

India is taking another step in its quest to find valuable minerals hidden in the depths of the ocean which could hold the key to a cleaner future.

The country, which already has two deep-sea exploration licences in the Indian Ocean, has applied for two more amid increasing competition between major global powers to secure critical minerals.

Countries including China, Russia and India are vying to reach the huge deposits of mineral resources – cobalt, nickel, copper, manganese – that lie thousands of metres below the surface of oceans. These are used to produce renewable energy such as solar and wind power, electric vehicles and battery technology needed to battle against climate change.

The UN-affiliated International Seabed Authority (ISA) has issued 31 exploration licences so far, of which 30 are active. Its member countries are meeting in Jamaica this week to discuss regulations around giving out mining licences.

If the ISA approves India’s new applications, its licence count will be equal to that of Russia and one less than China.

One of India’s applications seeks to explore polymetallic sulphides – chimney-like mounds near hydrothermal vents containing copper, zinc, gold and silver – in the Carlsberg Ridge of the Central Indian Ocean.

The ISA’s legal and technical commission has sent a list of comments and questions about this to the Indian government, according to a document seen by the BBC.

In response to the other application – to explore the cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts of the Afanasy-Nikitin Seamount in the Central Indian Ocean – the commission has noted that another unnamed country has claimed the seabed area (that India has applied for) as part of their extended continental shelf and asked India for a response.

Whatever the outcome of the applications, one thing is clear: India does not want to fall behind in the race to secure critical minerals from the bottom of the oceans.

“The Indian Ocean promises tremendous potential reserves and that expanse has motivated the government of India to increase its scientific exploration of the ocean’s depths,” says Nathan Picarsic, co-founder of Horizon Advisory, a US-based geopolitical and supply chain intelligence provider.

The black polymetallic sea nodules, the nickel, manganese and cobalt rich mineral deposits, these balls form naturally deep under the sea. Indian deep ocean exploration vehicle under development as part of Samudrayaan (Ocean Craft) program a part of deep ocean mission, seen on December 22, 2022 at the National Institute Of Ocean Technology Institute, Chennai, India.

Image source, Getty Images

India, China, Germany and South Korea already have exploration licences for polymetallic sulphides in the Indian Ocean ridge area.

In 2022, India’s National Institute of Ocean Technology conducted trials of its mining machine at a depth of 5,270m in the central Indian Ocean basin and collected some polymetallic nodules (potato-shaped rocks that lie on the seafloor and are rich in manganese, cobalt, nickel, and copper).

India’s earth sciences ministry did not respond to the BBC’s questions on the country’s deep-sea mining plans.

“India may be ultimately seeking to project that it is a powerhouse in its own right, one that is not to be outrivalled in its own backyard, as well as to give the impression that it is not lagging behind the Chinese when it comes to the deep sea,” says Pradeep Singh, who works on ocean governance at the Research Institute for Sustainability in Potsdam, Germany.

The US is not part of the race to mine international waters as it has not ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the agreement which led to the creation of the ISA. Instead, it aims to source minerals from its domestic seabed and process ones mined by its allies from international waters.

Supporters of deep seabed exploration say that mining on land has almost reached a saturation point, resulting in low-quality production, and that many of the mineral source-areas are plagued by conflict or environmental issues.

But environmental campaigners say the deep seabed is the last frontier in the planet that remains largely unstudied and untouched by humanity and mining there could cause irreparable damage, no matter how pressing the need.

Around two dozen countries – including the UK, Germany, Brazil and Canada – are also demanding either a halt or a temporary pause on deep-sea mining, given what they say is a lack of information about the marine ecosystems in those depths.

The UN-affiliated International Seabed Authority (ISA) has issued 31 exploration licences so far, of which 30 are active.

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The World Bank has projected that extraction of critical minerals will need to increase fivefold by 2050 to meet the demand for clean energy technologies.

India has a short-term target of increasing its renewables capacity to 500 gigawatts by 2030, and meeting 50% of its energy requirements from renewables by then, with the long-term goal of achieving net zero emissions by 2070.

To meet these targets, experts say India will need to secure critical minerals from all possible sources including the deep seabed.

Currently, a few countries dominate the production of critical minerals on land. Australia is a major producer of lithium, while Chile is the top provider of copper. China predominantly produces graphite and rare earths (used in smartphones and computers).

But there are geopolitical concerns about China’s dominance in processing these minerals before they enter the supply chain.

China – which has honed processing technologies and expertise over decades – currently controls 100% of the refined supply of natural graphite and dysprosium, 70% of cobalt and almost 60% of all processed lithium and manganese, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency.

Moreover, Beijing has banned the export of some of its processing technologies.

“We are up against a dominant supplier that is willing to weaponise market power for political gain,” US energy secretary Jennifer Granholm said at a critical minerals and clean energy summit in August 2023.

It’s to counter China that the US and several western countries launched the Minerals Security Partnership – to catalyse “investment in responsible critical minerals supply chains” – in 2022. India is now a member.

India has also signed an agreement with Russia to develop deep-sea mining technologies.

“The confluence of rising geopolitical tensions and the energy transition is speeding up the scramble to extract, process and utilise critical minerals,” Mr Picarsic says.

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