Published on August 15th, 2020 |
by Johnna Crider
August 15th, 2020 by Johnna Crider
DeepGreen is a deep-sea mining company with a vision of a zero-carbon, circular economy. Its goal is to source metals with the least environmental and societal impact. I noticed the company when its social media marketer added me to a Twitter list.
DeepGreen Metals has an interesting name and it caught my attention more when I checked out its profile and was graciously offered the opportunity to interview the CEO, Gerard Barron. I find the world of minerals, metals, and gemstones a fascinating one, and DeepGreen’s story using a technique with minerals to extract rare earth metals (rare earth elements or REEs) really piqued my curiosity.
Interview with Gerard Barron of DeepGreen Metals
Johnna Crider: I want to start the interview off by allowing you to share your story. Everyone has a story as to how they came upon the current work they are doing. What’s yours?
Gerard Barron: I started my first company at university and have been on an omnivorous entrepreneurial path ever since. I have built companies in finance, publishing, car battery manufacturing, telecoms, and software-as-a-service. All of them felt like meaningful, value–creating ventures in their niches … but then a few years ago a serious, pressing planetary scale problem got hold of me and I have been in its grip ever since.
The issues are complex and nuanced, solutions are hard and emotionally charged — but it’s important, so it’s worth persevering. For me, this story started about 20 years ago when I seed-funded a friend’s far-fetched but intriguing ventures to explore the potential of metal deposits on the deep seabed. I wasn’t directly involved in his ventures as I was busy running my software-as-a-service company, but I was certainly paying attention.
Like most people, I became increasingly concerned with climate change and the mind-boggling, colossal scale of the transition required to get off fossil fuels. And then one day it hit me: we are playing a game of wack-a-mole with extractive industries! In our bid to get off fossil fuels, we are massively ramping up global demand for another extractive industry — mineral extraction. Renewable powerplants, electric transmission infrastructure, energy storage batteries, electric vehicles all need a lot of metal to build. Given this aggressive global scale-up in the metal demand, I started looking into where these metals come from today and the environmental footprint of their production.
That’s how I started following what’s happening in countries like the Congo, Indonesia, South Africa, Russia, Chile … and that’s when I realized that the company I happened to invest in might have a better solution. Those abundant, remarkable rocks sitting on the deep seabed could be a less environmentally destructive way to supply the clean energy transition. It was also clear that a new way of thinking about metals was necessary to get this right and to avoid perpetuating a new extractive industry. That’s when I got more involved and eventually took over running DeepGreen about three years ago.
JC: I admit, when I saw the “rock battery” section on your website, my mineral collecting side got excited. What inspired you and DeepGreen to even think about polymetallic nodules as a solution to providing critical metals needed in EV battery technology?
GB: We were looking at the specific metal needs of the climate transition to understand where the four metals contained in polymetallic nodules (Ni, Mn, Co, Cu) are needed most. A wind turbine needs many tonnes of manganese. Electric transmission wires require copper. All steel structures require nickel.
And then we looked at EV batteries and it struck us that battery cathode chemistries were not only moving towards nickel-intensive chemistries but specifically towards NMC chemistries containing Nickel, Manganese and Cobalt, with the nickel-to-cobalt ratio in the ultimate NMC 811 chemistry very closely approximating this ratio in deep-sea nodules. It was uncanny. The term “NMC battery in a rock” itself was not coined by us but an EV manufacturer who reached out to us to understand how far along we were in the process.
JC: I’ve read about DeepGreen’s sourcing the metals from the seafloor in a way that is as environmentally friendly as possible. Can you give me any details as to how this is and why it works?
GB: First, it’s important that we are real: collecting polymetallic nodules from the deep seafloor still means that we are taking from the planet a resource that is not renewable on human time scales. These rocks precipitate metals that are in solution in the ocean and take millions of years to form. There is some wildlife living on and near these rocks. So, these metals come with environmental costs. But they also offer an opportunity to dramatically reduce the environmental impacts compared to what we do today — mining metal deposits on land in some of the most biodiverse ecosystems on Earth. This dramatic compression is possible because of two factors — the properties of the rocks themselves and then the choices we can make as a steward of these rocks. Let’s start with the rocks themselves:
- They sit unattached on the seabed. This means we don’t need to do what we do on land: clear rainforests, remove topsoil, drill and blast hard rock to excavate the ore. We need to go 4 km under the surface of the ocean and collect them using water jets that hit the rocks in parallel with the seabed, using the “Coanda effect“ to gently channel them into a collector and then into an enclosed 4 km–long pipe that brings them to the surface vessel.
- They contain high grades of four metals all in a single rock. On land, you would need to dig up at least three types of ore from three different mines and process four times more mass to get the same amount of metal.
- What they don’t contain is as important as what they do contain: nodules have no toxic levels of hazardous elements. This is a big deal because it makes it much easier to use 100% of the rock mass and produce no solid waste. On land, you often have to spend energy to remove toxic elements like arsenic and antimony from the metal products, then separate and deal with the residual toxic sludge. In the worst cases, it gets dumped into rivers, oceans, and nearby land poisoning ecosystems. In best cases, this toxic sludge is placed into constructed tailings dams that then need to be maintained indefinitely into the future. This is not a trivial task as man-made structures decay and has a nasty habit of failing (too many recent awful examples to site here but search for “Brazil and tailings dam”).
- Nodules sit in the dark, quiet abyss — a food-poor bottom of the ocean with two orders of magnitude less biomass than what you would find in the soil on land. Just because there are so few creatures in the abyss and they tend to be very small does not mean they are not important or not worth protecting. 90% of these rocks sit in the top 5 centimeters of the seabed (think of it as fields covered with a 5 cm layer of loose rocks), so this presents an opportunity we don’t have on land: we can set large areas as preservation zones, we can leave ecologically-sensitive areas untouched, we can leave a pattern of rocks that connects habitats and aids recovery. On land, you have no choice, to make an open pit to access the ore, you have to cut down the forest and remove the topsoil.
As stewards of these rocks, we have made a couple of important commitments that ensure we leave as little impact as possible:
- We’re dead set on zero solid processing waste, so we designed a plant that delivers just that.
- We are dead set on using renewables for processing these rocks onshore, so this is a screening criterion we use to identify suitable sites around the globe.
- We must understand, avoid, and minimize our ocean impacts, so we have partnered with some of the world’s leading deep-sea scientists and are investing over $60 million into a . All findings will be peer-reviewed and published.
In the end, what does that all add up to over the lifecycle of metal production? Last year we commissioned an independently authored study looking at . To be honest, even my team was surprised by the results.
JC: I love how DeepGreen wants to help the EV movement. Clean cars are something that should be on the road — and only clean cars. EV companies are in need of critical metals for batteries. Elon Musk stated in the Tesla Q2 2020 earnings call that Tesla needs nickel. How would DeepGreen go about getting Tesla that nickel? (Elon Musk, there’s something here you might be interested in.)
GB: First, let’s start with the potential: the amount of nickel (and cobalt, copper, and manganese) contained in the rocks sitting in our exploration areas would be enough to build ~250 million EVs. That’s about one-fifth of the entire global passenger car fleet on the roads today.
Second, we don’t want to sell Tesla nickel per se. It’s the structural, electrical, chemical properties of metals that Tesla needs, not the metal itself. So we would much rather rent the use of required metals and collect the battery cathodes at the end of EV battery life, so we could recover and reinject the metal back into the system. That’s the best way to guarantee that over time we will wean ourselves off of taking more metal from the seabed or out of the ground.
Thirdly, the practical side of getting Tesla their nickel is all about proceeding with great caution and radical transparency. In January this year, we collected 70 tonnes of nodules for a processing pilot plant program, so Tesla and any other EV manufacturers can have product samples already in about 6–9 months. The onshore processing requires conventional equipment, so it’s less of a challenge.
The real challenge is making sure our offshore nodule collection system causes as little damage as possible. Together with our partner Allseas, we will be piloting our nodule collection system on-site in the Pacific Ocean in 2022. In parallel, we are working on the program I mentioned above to establish environmental baselines and assess future ocean impacts of our operations, so we can evolve our collection system design. If you look at our spending, most of it goes into this ocean science program.
And if Tesla wants to roll up their sleeves and apply themselves to subsea engineering side, we would certainly welcome it. We are not attached to a particular engineering solution, but we are attached to a solution that can minimize deep-sea disturbance.
JC: I see you have a section for jobs and training on the DeepGreen website. What type of jobs does DeepGreen need the most and how do you train your employees?
GB: Right at this moment, most of the job opportunities are for researchers to support our environmental expeditions offshore. Going to our exploration areas in the Pacific Ocean is a bit like going to the moon — it takes 4–5 days of sailing to get there, and once you are there, you can’t drop out of the office for Starbucks or get an Amazon package delivered or get helicoptered back onshore.
You are out in the Pacific Ocean and safety is the first, second, and third priority. So, a lot of the training our people go through is about offshore safety. And then we have an amazing partner in Maersk whose crew has been excellent at managing composite teams of crew, contractors, and scientists all working together in close quarters offshore. As we get closer to the start of the actual operations, we will be creating hundreds of new jobs offshore (crew, operators, ocean scientists, environmental managers) and thousands of jobs onshore.
We are sponsored by three Pacific Island nation states — Nauru, Tonga, and Kiribati — so we are hoping to train and offer people from these nations as many offshore jobs as possible. And onshore, we are looking to build up to 10 plants on three continents, so this will be an exciting challenge.
JC: How do you think DeepGreen will impact EVs and the environment within the next 10 years?
GB: If people knew as much about the environmental impacts of metals that go into their EVs as they know about the impacts of fossil fuels today, and are willing to push car companies to source metals with lower impacts, that would be would be a huge win. So a lot of our job is about education. The other big challenge is getting to a place where not a single metal atom going into EVs today ends up in a landfill.
I believe that requires moving to a metals-as-a-service business model and letting go of the idiotic idea that metals are consumables. We need to adopt Prof Braungart’s idea that metals are techno-nutrients that we need to keep cycling throughout our technosphere. And if within the next 10 years we have a few million EVs around the globe driving on batteries made with metals from our rocks, that would be great too provided we deliver on the dramatic reduction of environmental impacts.
JC: What other deep-sea applications could your extraction process be used for? What other problems could it help solve environmentally?
GB: There are three additional areas where our presence can add significant value — ocean science, medicine, and technology. The deep ocean has proven to be fertile ground for scientific breakthroughs in recent years, including the isolation of enzymes critical to testing for coronaviruses. As part of our ocean discovery program, we are collecting a lot of samples. Our library already contains 10,540 preserved biological samples, including 5,750 infauna samples, 2,500 sediment metagenomic samples, and 2,200 megafauna specimens. And this is just the beginning.
We are hopeful that our large catalog of biological and deep-sea sediment samples will enable researchers to unlock the vast potential of these common heritage resources and advance the frontiers of deep-ocean science. Another aspect is persistent ocean monitoring. In order to constantly adapt our operations to minimize ocean impacts, we will have a lot of sensors and instrumentation throughout the water column. Our operations will become a firehose of data on the state of the Pacific Ocean. Some of this data would be very helpful for monitoring ocean health and especially the cumulative impacts of climate change.
JC: What haven’t I asked you that you would like the world to know about DeepGreen?
GB: People don’t normally think of cleantech, architecture, and design when it comes to metal production and heavy industry. But we are a startup with no legacies to protect, so we have the opportunity to reimagine this industry from scratch. How do we turn our seabed collectors into gentle giants?
What if people working in the Pacific Ocean could bring their families along and live off the ocean on floating islands … and invite deep-sea researchers, aquaculture farmers, and engineers interested in harnessing offshore wind, solar, wave, and thermal energy? What if these floating platforms could be prototypes of human-made habitats for communities displaced by rising sea levels? Onshore, what if we reimagined metal processing plants, so they can be integrated into exciting new energy ecosystems, rather than ugly industrial monsters we place out of sight?
These are some of the questions we are now exploring with some of the world’s most visionary architecture and design firms. They have already challenged our own ideas on several fronts, so this is an exciting process we are going through.
Barron mentioned antimony which many may not know about. Not many people know what it is or just how truly dangerous it is. I went to a mineral show and fell in love with stibnite. Happily, I brought it home and set it up on my shelf. And started getting pretty ill. Little did I know, I’d bought mineral so deadly that it made a Forbes list. Upon researching stibnite and finding out that it’s pure antimony, which is highly toxic, I put it in a secure, velvet-lined container and really scrubbed my hands.
As a mineral collector, one of the things I often warn friends who either want to start wire wrapping stones or collecting them about toxic minerals and metals. They are out there and often get mixed up with innocent gems and minerals at shows. The video above is at a local mineral and gem show, and this was well before I knew just how deadly this particular mineral is. However, as long as you wash your hands and don’t breathe in the dust, you should be fine.
This is why I fully agree with Barron about education — especially in the cleantech industry. Many people don’t think about where the metals in their EV batteries, as well as their phones and other tech, come from. They just go to the store, buy their stuff, and live their lives. If we were to think about the idea of how we can contribute toward recycling REEs (recycle your old phones and laptops even if your phone company says it’s “too old” to have any monetary value!!), I think people, in general, would care more.
Seeing a mining company focusing on not just mining, but doing so in a way that is lessening its impact on our environment compared to current operations (both mining and other industries), is not only inspiring, but it brings about hope that we, humanity, can discover a way to be kinder toward our planet.
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