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China, Russia, India vie for sea minerals

Metal Tech News - March 25, 2024

With the U.S. still out of undersea race to the bottom of international waters, India strives for greener way toward trillion-dollar resource.

The United Nations International Seabed Authority (ISA) has approved 31 license applications for permission to explore international waters, with only two belonging to India from 2016. This is in comparison to China's five and Russia's four.

Having never ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which led to the creation of the ISA, the U.S. aims to source minerals from its domestic seabed and process materials mined by its allies from international waters.

China, Germany, and South Korea already have licenses for exploration in the Indian Ocean. India has applied for two additional exploration licenses to lock down influence over these waters, including polymetallic sulfide deposits and cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts.

The Blue Economy

"The exploration studies of minerals will pave way for the commercial exploitation in the near future, as and when commercial exploitation code is evolved by the International Seabed Authority (ISA), a UN organisation. This component will help the blue economy priority area of exploring and harnessing of deep-sea minerals and energy," penned in an Indian government Deep Ocean Mission press release. "Bio-prospecting of deep-sea flora and fauna including microbes and studies on sustainable utilisation of deep-sea bio-resources will be the main focus."

The mission will also center on the development of ocean climate change advisory services to support coastal tourism, off-shore energy development, exploration and conservation of deep-sea biodiversity, and the construction of an advanced marine station for ocean biology.

Following the licensing, India's Ministry of Earth Sciences launched a Deep Ocean Mission in 2021, with a reported $480 million set aside to support the project over the next five years. The first wave includes the Matsya 6000 vehicle (matsya is Sanskrit for fish), designed to get three personnel down 6000 meters to the seabed to retrieve a sampling of polymetallic modules packed with rare earth metals.

Mining before sufficient study is being opposed by several countries seeking temporary bans to first establish the vulnerability of the deep sea ecosystem. Though many in India are not opposed to the cautious approach of conscientious preservation, China's blocking of the ISA's discussions of a deep sea mining ban has forced a more aggressive approach.

India has made its next move to secure valuable minerals hidden in the depths of the ocean which could hold the key to an energy transition unbound by the more developed rules and restrictions of land-based mining.

"We cannot let China draw the rules for the seabed, it's a balance that India will have to strike," said Indian journalist Palki Sharma in a Firstpost international news report.

Testing the waters

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

The critical minerals to be found on the seafloor would be used to produce renewable energy, such as solar and wind power, electric vehicles and battery technology needed to battle against climate change.

The manned Matsya 6000 submersible is meant to study deep-sea resources and do biodiversity assessments, and it will not disturb the ocean ecosystem, according to the Indian government.

The Deep Ocean Mission supports Prime Minister Narendra Modi's vision of sustainable utilization of ocean resources for the economic growth of the country, improving livelihoods and jobs, and preserving ocean ecosystem health.

"We are moving towards a future where the Blue Economy will be the medium to create a Green Planet," said Modi.

The term 'blue economy' refers to the sustainable utilization of marine and coastal resources for exploration, improved livelihoods, and economic growth without compromising the health of these ecosystems-encompassing aquaculture, renewable energy, shipping, tourism, and others.

The ISA member countries are meeting in Jamaica this week for ongoing discussions regarding regulations around giving out mining licenses, including approval of India's latest applications.

One of the two exploration applications is regarding chimney-like polymetallic sulfide deposits accompanying hydrothermal vents, which contain copper, gold, silver and zinc. This includes the Carlsberg Ridge in the Central Indian Ocean.

The second application centers on the Afanasy-Nikitin Seamount in the Central Indian Ocean to explore the cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts.

Another unnamed country has also claimed the seabed area that India has applied for as part of their extended continental shelf, which will require deliberation.

"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," said Nathan Picarsic, co-founder of Horizon Advisory, a US-based geopolitical and supply chain intelligence provider. "The confluence of rising geopolitical tensions and the energy transition is speeding up the scramble to extract, process and utilize critical minerals."


China, Germany, and South Korea already have licenses for exploration in the Indian Ocean. India has applied for two additional exploration licenses to lock down influence over these waters, including polymetallic sulfide deposits and cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts.

The long- and short-term

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

In spite of the short timeline and pressing need for resources, around two dozen countries, including Brazil, Canada, Germany and the UK, have been pushing for a moratorium on deep-sea mining, citing concerns that given the lack of information and regulation, mining operations could cause irreparable damage.

India's National Institute of Ocean Technology has already conducted mining trials in the central Indian Ocean basin back in 2022, collecting polymetallic nodules.

"India may be ultimately seeking to project that it is a powerhouse in its own right, one that is not to be outrivaled 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," said Pradeep Singh, who works on ocean governance at the Research Institute for Sustainability in Potsdam, Germany.

According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, China currently controls 100% of the refined supply of natural graphite and dysprosium, 70% of cobalt, and almost 60% of the world's processed lithium and manganese.

To break China's grip on the production and material resources at the core of the energy transition, the U.S. and several countries, including India, have joined the Minerals Security Partnership, whose declaration is to catalyze "investment in responsible critical minerals supply chains."

Though the likelihood of a conservative moratorium beating out the urgency to find energy transition minerals is slim, the hope for greener approaches to deep sea mining – beyond traditionally damaging techniques such as dredging – is still alive in India, and other countries such as Norway, whose supporters of deep sea mining are also vocal advocates of protecting the oceanic ecosystem.

Regulation and strict policies regarding environmental harm are of intense importance to lawmakers, green startups, and mining interests, as well as an ever-expanding and highly attentive global network of stakeholders.


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