Metal Tech News - January 29, 2024
As an entrepreneur and business development executive, Oliver Gunasekara has left his mark on the tech world over the past 30-plus years. His latest project, Impossible Metals, is poised to be a real game-changer in the quest of deep sea mining for minerals critical to clean energy – which can and should maintain equal ESG standards to land-based mining.
Rather than dredging the seafloor for precious polymetallic nodules containing the nickel, manganese, and cobalt needed for lithium-ion batteries, Gunasekara and Impossible Metals co-founders Jason Gillham and Renee Grogan have developed an AI and machine learning-powered robotic rover with crab-like pincers that selectively plucks only targeted material visually free of life, leaving the abyssal habitat all but undisturbed.
Metal Tech News recently talked with Gunasekara about founding Impossible Metals, the state of deep-sea mining (DSM), and the need for responsibly harvesting battery metals from the ocean floor to help battle climate change. Here is what he had to say:
MTN: You're a strong voice of reason in the DSM space, coming to it in a roundabout way – what don't your online bios tell me about your personal interest in this specific startup's success?
Gunasekara: As a California resident who is affected by the destruction of the enormous California wildfires, which are increasing every year, I became intrigued with the thoughts of how can we reduce or even reverse the effects of climate change. I spent almost a year researching the causes of climate change and what we can do to stop any more damage to the Earth. Once I'd narrowed down the compelling issue of the need for electric vehicle battery metals and the reams of data showing that the ocean floor contains enough materials to electrify the world, I knew that this was where I could make a difference. I was also horrified to learn that 1970s-based dredging technology was being proposed to mine the seabed.
MTN: How did you gather your team of co-founders, and are you expanding?
Gunasekara: With my experience as an entrepreneur and a founder, I know how important it is to have the right co-founders with the right experience. Collecting critical minerals from the seabed floor clearly necessitated expertise in subsea robotics and mining. As soon as I started searching for that expertise, it quickly became apparent that Jason Gillham and Renee Grogan had it. And when I pitched them on the idea of Impossible Metals, they were immediately intrigued with the difference we could make.
We aren't currently expanding, but as we prove our technology and it goes into production, that could change. We are always on the lookout for the best talent.
MTN: Today's entrepreneurs can be both relentless and fickle – founding and selling startups once they have legs, so to speak, are you in this one for the long run?
Gunasekara: I am in this one for the long run because it is so critical that we electrify human civilization. Failure to stop the warming of the Earth caused by the use of fossil fuels and the resultant CO2 emissions will ultimately lead to massive environment and social issues. We still have time to course correct if we act now.
MTN: Impossible Metals is taking a unique approach – rather than leaning into convincing the world that dredging is a given for battery mineral acquisition, your company emphasizes the fact that our seabeds deserve a technology that creates the least disturbance possible. Your co-founder, Renee Grogan, has openly stated in interviews that the end goal is closed-loop, all recycled metals. Is the industry just short on visionaries who can see how to evolve to that point without feeling their bottom line threatened?
Gunasekara: Reaching a closed-loop, all-recycled metals state would be an ideal solution, but that's assuming that the usage of and need for electrification remains static, which we know realistically isn't how technology advances work historically. It's very likely that battery recycling may achieve 100% circularity in 50 years – which will help close the demand gap for batteries, but mining for new metals will still be necessary.
We're proud of the unique approach we're taking to obsolete the 1970s dredging technology and instead harvest battery minerals responsibly. I don't know that I would say the industry is short on visionaries, but it is difficult to course correct when you've invested millions of dollars in your technology. And since we started from scratch with responsible harvesting always at the front and center of our technology design, we have a distinct advantage over others in the industry.
MTN: Most reports are still dominated by Gerard Barron's dismissal of the issue as being the lesser of two evils – it's better than mining on land, full stop.
Meanwhile, detractors say too little is known, and we need a moratorium. The two camps are focused on a will-we-won't-we dynamic rather than meeting in the middle with sustainable solutions. Is Impossible Metals alone in this, or do you have peers the media should be paying more attention to?
Gunasekara: You've captured the current state of the issue exactly. Gerard Barron is not wrong about deep-sea mining being less destructive than land mining, but he's also not totally right. I don't believe accepting ocean floor destruction caused by dredging is the only way. Impossible Metals is proving that we can responsibly harvest seabed minerals with minimal impact on the environment: our equipment hovers above the ocean floor versus rolling across it; our technology carefully selects and picks up nodules without life versus vacuuming it all up, to name a few advantages of our novel approach.
We're working hard to change the lens that people use to view deep-sea mining. We understand and believe in protecting the ocean floor, but just saying stop it all unequivocally is short-sighted and involves magical thinking and wishing climate change away.
Climate change is happening, every degree the Earth's temperature rises causes more death and destruction, and we need electrification to halt the rise in CO2 emissions from our dependence on fossil fuels. And we need more critical metals to manufacture more batteries to enable electricity storage. So, let's figure out the way to get these minerals with the least amount of impact, which is selectively harvesting the polymetallic nodules from the seabed floor, which contain critical metals needed for battery production.
Peers the press should be paying more attention to:
MTN: With deep-sea research being underfunded, it's a given that commercial interests are going to get there first, especially with Norway taking the next step in allowing exploration. There's a real fear that a lack of international policy, in combination with the net-zero timeline will create a vacuum inevitably filled by data geared to justify the payout. Are you, as an investor, prepared for a long-term "measure twice, cut once" approach, or are you feeling the time crunch?
Gunasekara: I don't agree that deep-sea research is underfunded – there are reams of research. To upgrade an exploration permit to an exploitation permit typically requires about $50 million of marine science and multiple years of data.
Deep sea mining is so much more complex than the detractors want you to know.
For instance, there are two internationally and legally defined types of deep-sea mining jurisdictions:
• A nation's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)
• High Seas known as the 'Area' beyond national jurisdiction
The ISA is only responsible for regulating mining of the high seas, which is 58% of the planet's oceans. The 150 jurisdictions with EEZs are responsible for regulating the remaining 42% of the ocean, and over a dozen of them are working to finalize deep-sea mining regulations.
An example of the complexity of deep-sea mining is the Norway Parliament's approval of legislation allowing companies to apply for permits to prospect for minerals in the Norwegian EEZ. Norway's EEZ does not contain any polymetallic nodules; but instead, the critical minerals are found in massive sulfide deposits near inactive hydrothermal vents. It's expected that the contractor will obtain a permit for exploration by 2025 and then collect data for up to eight years before starting to mine in 2032, assuming legislation to approve mining is approved.
The ISA is not involved in that decision, as it is entirely under the jurisdiction of Norway.
The international policy set by the ISA is critically important, as it can set the tone for deep sea mining regulations, but each of the 150 EEZ jurisdictions will set its own policies.
MTN: The mining industry, in general, has been struggling to get out from under a historical PR problem, where it has become imperative to change the public's view of mining to inspire community buy-in and grow the workforce. Social media and a new wave of environmentally conscientious leaders and investors like yourself have driven more businesses to take on sustainability and environmental stewardship as core aims. Do you feel you and your contemporaries are cutting through the noise to the heart of this sustainability issue and being heard?
Gunasekara: Yes, I think we are starting to cut through the noise and being heard. Climate change naysayers have lost credibility with the extreme weather events we're starting to see globally. People are definitely more aware of sustainability and environmental stewardship than, say, five years ago, but there is still a lot of misinformation being shared. Education is so important because we're in a race to halt global warming, and there are so many moving parts that take time to activate and involve government regulations and funding, raw materials and supply chains, and technology innovation and adoption.
MTN: You've had a recent bone to pick with Hawaii's rejection of DSM and a recent Deep Sea Mining op-ed claiming the U.S. stands on the sidelines while Europe and China have a field day over policy and development. Is Impossible Metals a hidden gem in our own backyard?
Gunasekara: I absolutely believe that Impossible Metals' novel and responsible seabed harvesting technology will enable the United States and other countries to strengthen supply chains and sever reliance on critical metals from China, Indonesian habitat destruction for nickel mining and production, and the artisanal mining using child labor in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) for manganese.
MTN: On that note, what kind of traction does Impossible Metals look to gain in the DSM space during 2024, and how can your supporters help?
Gunasekara: We're really excited about ocean testing Eureka II in the Blake Plateau this quarter, where we plan to pick up real nodules. We appreciate all of our growing fan base, and they can help by following our journey and amplifying our content to help get our message out that responsible deep-sea mining for critical metals is possible.
Click here to watch a New York Times interview and video presentation with Renee Grogan.