Daniel Kammen: The Perils of Deep-Sea Mining

Most of us have never been there but according to a quick Google search, some of the things you might see at the bottom of the ocean include sea spiders, tube worms, and something called a blob sculpin. Add to that list: heavy equipment for mining rare earth minerals like cobalt and manganese. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with Daniel Kammen, an energy professor at the University of California at Berkeley, about deep-sea mining. We learn about this segment of the extraction industry, consider the environmental hazards, and examine why it’s largely unnecessary. We also take a look at the promise of growing rare minerals like perovskites in laboratories, and discuss the recent Sunnylands Climate Agreement between the U.S. and China.

Narrator | 00:02 – This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

Daniel Kammen (DK) | 00:25 – Cobalt as mined today, either in the Congo, where most, most of it comes from, or um, from the seabed, is hugely problematic and damaging.

Narrator | 00:37 – Most of us have never been there but according to a quick Google search, some of the things you might see at the bottom of the ocean include sea spiders, tube worms, and something called a blob sculpin. Add to that list: heavy equipment for mining rare earth minerals like cobalt and manganese. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with Daniel Kammen, an energy professor at the University of California at Berkeley, about deep-sea mining. We learn about this segment of the extraction industry, consider the environmental hazards, and examine why it’s largely unnecessary. We also take a look at the promise of growing rare minerals like perovskites in laboratories, and discuss the recent Sunnylands Climate Agreement between the U.S. and China.

Alex Wise (AW) | 01:46 – I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Daniel Kammen. He is a Professor of Energy at UC Berkeley, and a former science envoy for President Obama. Dan, welcome back to Sea Change Radio. 

Daniel Kammen (DK) | 01:57 – Thanks for having me back on. I really appreciate it. 

Alex Wise (AW) | 02:00 – Always a pleasure. I wanted you to summarize the white paper that you presented at COP 28 in Dubai. It was entitled, “Next Generation EV Batteries Eliminate the Need for Deep-Sea Mining.” So first, what is deep-sea mining and what’s the problem that it presents?

Daniel Kammen (DK) | 02:19 – So, deep-seabed mining is in my view, kind of one of the scariest crossover issues between the old energy economy and the new energy economy. And by that what I mean is that we’ve known about seabed mining for a long time. In fact, Howard Hughes was, one of the many ways he was famous was he constructed a boat, the Glomar Explorer that was ostensibly supposed to be harvesting these nodules of rare earth metals, manganese, cobalt, a variety of things from the sea floor. And they’re about the size of tennis balls or softballs. They grow very slowly, um, at low temperature and, and, and high pressure and he had this boat that was designed to go do that. But in fact, we now know decades later that the Glomar Explorer was actually a CIA front and it was a front to go and try to pull a sunken Russian submarine off the bottom of the ocean.

AW | 03:15 – This was not in the white paper, but this is very interesting <laugh>.

DK | 03:18 – It is very interesting. That’s right. So, so this is an example of deep-seabed harvesting being a front for essentially cold war. So we’ve known about there are these nodules on the ocean bed floor. They grow a fraction of a millimeter a year in size. They accumulate these, these materials. And the issue that intersects with the new energy economy is that with the rise of the need for materials for solar panels and in particular batteries for electric vehicles, a number of companies have been launched. They have names like the Metals Company, impossible Metals, and others arguing that we should be harvesting these materials from the seabed floor and we should be doing this because of our green consciousness, because we need these materials for the green energy economy. We need to get off fossil fuels. And so there is this weird dialogue going on where companies that are basically trying to strip the seabed floor the least understood, the least explored environment on earth. And arguably we know more about the dark side of the moon than the bottom of the ocean. Amazingly, they are, they, they’re saying we need them to harvest these materials. And while it’s true, we need materials, um, we hear about lithium and cobalt all the time. But, um, manganese and, um, germanium, other materials are important as well for the clean energy economy. What we don’t need is to destroy ecosystems to get them. And there are many reasons for that. While the demand for these rare earth materials, and by the way, they’re no longer, they’re, they’re neither rare nor earth, they happen to be metals on, um, you know, whether we mine them from the seabed floor or whether we mine them from traditional mines, or actually people are not talking about going to asteroids to get them in large numbers. These materials are important. However, we waste so much material today. We do not recycle. We are not doing a very thoughtful job at all in looking at lower impact materials to be the hubs of our batteries for our electric vehicles and elsewhere. And so that’s the backstory. Um, the one other element is that there is a organization based in Kingston, Jamaica called the International Seabed Authority. There self-appointed mission is to manage seabed resources. But unfortunately what they have proven to be now several years running is essentially a yes shop that is approving seabed mining permits whenever a country or a company tries to push for it. And so we have a really unfortunate sequence of events to quote Lemony Snicket, where a company is using the cover of Green Energy to promote something which is almost certainly hugely destructive in terms of strip mining. This very fragile ecosystem producing plumes of dust that falls back on the ocean floor that affects carbon sequestration. It affects very, very vulnerable deep water ecosystems including those so-called black smokers. Those things you see on National Geographic where we have these deep-sea hydrothermal vents covered with unusual life forms. All of those are at risk if we basically give permits for companies to put huge vacuum cleaners several kilometers down on the ocean floor and suck up all these materials. So the argument is one, do we need it? And this paper I’ll describe in a second, highlights the fact that we do not need it for several reasons. And two, how are we licensing a global collective resource, the international seabed waters for the profit of a few companies when in fact, A, we don’t need it. And B, the damage to ecosystems and the damage to the ocean is likely to be horrific. 

AW | 07:21 – So from a business standpoint, can you maybe summarize the evolution of both deep-sea and land mining and how evolved those companies are in terms of market cap and, and the alternative to deep-sea mining is viable? Maybe you can kind of give us an idea of how viable that is. 

DK | 07:39 – Right. So the companies that are proposing we do this strip mining of the ocean floor are new companies. They’re trying to leverage and take advantage of some of the oil and gas deep-seabed exploration and mining technologies. And they are cl they are touting a market in the billions of dollars, but very high capital costs because mining the ocean floor is not simple. It’s also out of sight, out of mine. So they know if they get permits, they will likely be able to go ahead for a long way before we discover what the damages have been. And that’s the deep-seabed angle. The other angle, of course, is traditional mining. And the claim from these new companies is, look, traditional mining is bad for human rights. We know that’s the case in many parts of the world, including Congo, which is a key source of cobalt. In fact, 70% of the world’s cobalt currently comes from the Congo. I’ve been down in some of those mines. There are issues of child labor, there’s environmental damages. And so traditional mining is, no, nothing delightful, but it’s an area where there is investment today. And it’s in also an area where better oversight, better certification, like we do for many products, um, like we’ve done for coffee and wine and various things, could play a not ideal, but a better role. 

AW | 08:56 – Because it’s right there in front of us. At least it’s not as obscured as the dark side of the moon, let’s say.  

DK | 09:01 – That is correct. Right. And so the paper that we released and that I spoke extensively on at the COP 28, the conference of the parties, the climate meeting in Dubai in uh, December, essentially said, look, there’s many aspects of this. One is to say we would like to see better certification of efforts to look at the Sea floor. In fact, what we called for was a moratorium on all exploration. And we now have 34 countries, including France and Germany and Mexico and many others saying we are not gonna permit deep-seabed mining and we call for a global moratorium. So that’s a good start. Um, but what we did in the paper was try to highlight the fact that this is not a environmentalist doom and gloom story where we’re saying, yes, we want clean energy, but no, we don’t want you to go get the materials for it. Far from it, what we highlighted in the paper was one interesting technological change, which five years ago was laboratory chemistry. And today is a key feature of battery technology and that is the current world leading battery technology for electric vehicles, for our cell phones, for our laptops is so-called lithium ion batteries. Lithium ion batteries have lithium in them by name. Uh, they also have cobalt in them. And cobalt is exceedingly problematic for environmental and human rights reasons. In fact, it’s probably the worst conflict material on the planet today surpassing Leonardo DiCaprio’s blood diamond and other, you know, key stories in the past. So cobalt is in the crosshairs. What’s interesting about this new material lithium phosphate is that it does not involve cobalt. So it still involves lithium. Um, and lithium looked like it was a challenge supply side 10 years ago. Now with a little bit of exploration, we’ve discovered there’s lots of lithium in lots of places, not just in China and Bolivia, but in California, salt and Sea, in inland aquifers, et cetera, et cetera. So lithium was a crisis material. Now that crisis has gone away, but cobalt is, and what’s interesting about the pathway from laboratory chemistry of making better batteries without cobalt, these lithium phosphate batteries, is that over the last five years, lithium phosphate has gone from just a few percent of the world battery market to almost 20% led by companies like VW and Tesla that have announced the end of the use of cobalt and a switch over to lithium phosphate. And so in the article we really highlighted how little effort it took to come up with a sus a much more sustainable human rights and environmentally positive choice that didn’t just idle and sit around in research laboratories looking for a market. It was in fact very quickly up, uh, taken up so that now roughly 20% of the market is, is moved over to lithium pho phosphate. And we would like to see efforts like this becoming the lens through which we look at things like deep-sea mining to say, Hey, we don’t need that particular source of cobalt from the Sea floor. There’s not enough of it to matter and these other alternatives are cheaper and they’re better for what we all claim to want to do. And that is to make the energy transition a just transition where we don’t just go from hydrocarbon and fossil fuels to clean energy, but we do so in a way that supports human rights, environmental rights. And that argument as taking off. I mean, I got tons and tons of requests for comments for press events and we again, we’re seeing major electric vehicle manufacturers making that switch today.

(Music Break) | 13:07 

AW | 13:38 – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Dan Camon. He is a Professor of Energy at UC Berkeley. So Dan, we were talking about these deep-sea mining materials, these minerals. You mentioned how lithium ion batteries became less scarce and less of an environmental disaster over the last few years. Is it possible that that could also happen with cobalt or we have to find alternatives to it?

DK | 14:03 – No, I, I don’t think so. I think actually the point of our paper is that it didn’t take much research, both chemistry laboratory work and materials marketing for electric vehicles to recognize that if cobalt is the real problem element of today, that we can switch away from it with already known battery materials and actually lithium phosphate batteries, while they have a little less charge capacity, so energy storage capacity than lithium ion, they have other benefits in terms of their life cycle, the lack of this kind of heating overheating issue that we’ve seen, um, in lithium ion batteries, which is why you’re not supposed to put them into your luggage, et cetera, et cetera. So I do think there is a really positive path here. 

AW | 14:48 – But is there a chance that cobalt all of a sudden becomes less scarce, I guess is the question?

DK | 14:54 – There is a chance, but, but the point is that cobalt as mined today, either in the Congo where most of it comes from or um, from the seabed, is hugely problematic and damaging. And so we might discover large supplies of cobalt elsewhere, such as in the mining tailings, meaning the waste materials from copper and other mines that has not yet been discovered. But what’s interesting is that it does not appear that cobalt is likely to be needed at all because the switch to other materials, phosphate phosphorus is very common. Lithium has gone from scarce to common. So there are much more sustainable materials available that give us essentially the same battery performance. And so there are certain materials like lithium where 10 years ago people thought this was going to be the true bottleneck with only China and Bolivia really having a significant supply. But we’ve now seen because of the interest in lithium, there’s been a real push to find in other places Chile just nationalized their lithium mines because they wanted to have higher quality oversight than they thought the companies could do. And in particular, phosphate is very common material. We use it for fertilizers, we access it in a whole variety of both mineral and bio waste areas. And so here’s an opportunity to solve a crisis before it happens in the sense that we do not need to grow massively the, the market for cobalt beyond where it is today. We can actually substitute it out of our supply chains and work towards what I would call this just transition, where we don’t want to abandon countries like the Congo. I work extensively there, but we want to work with them to access the materials that we do need, but in a way that respects both the environment and human rights. And as of right now, cobalt does not meet those criteria, whereas phosphorus, uh, phosphate does. 

AW | 17:00 – So are there other angles we could approach this problem with Dan? 

DK | 17:04 – Yeah, so there’s, there’s two routes. One is to find non-conflict sources of cobalt, and the other is to substitute away from cobalt. So far finding non-conflict sources of cobalt has not proven successful, largely because cobalt mining in the Congo is such big business and it’s big business where the US and China are competing. And so there’s a geopolitical angle and neither side wants to back away and sort of give the cobalt market to the other. So we could be harvesting cobalt from recycled materials, old cell phones, old electronics, et cetera, et cetera. Or we could be finding other sources. And so far we’ve not been successful in finding other sources of cobalt. However, the good news is that we are finding through the use of lithium phosphate, it may be actually easier to simply cut cobalt out of the supply chains almost entirely. For me, the challenge is no longer the material science. We know that works. We have big companies like VW and Tesla doing. So the real issue to me is that one does not want to abandon the Congo and say, well, you are a source of conflict materials, therefore we won’t work with you. The real issue is how can we assist mining and other efforts in these challenging parts of the world so that we pay a attention and maybe even a premium for non-conflict materials. Probably not cobalt, we probably don’t need it, but there’s other materials, germanium, tellurium, other things that are likely to be found in the same mines. And the question is, can we mine these with a much closer eye on human environmental rights than in the past? 

AW | 18:49 – You mentioned blood diamonds earlier. I know that one of the emerging trends in the diamond industry are lab grown diamonds. Do you see a future where some of these battery materials can be grown in labs? 

DK | 19:03 – I do. In fact, there’s a wonderful direct analogy and that is that one of the fastest evolving areas of solar cell technology is a material called a perovskites. And a perovskite is an entirely artificial material. So the only perovskite that exist today are manufactured in laboratories. We have a laboratory here at UC Berkeley, it’s called the Molecular Foundry. It’s a joint between uc, Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. And they can, they can manufacture perovskites. And so the interesting, you know, probably Nobel Prize worthy chemistry is can we come up with materials perovskites that are good solar technologies that themselves are only made up from relatively simple materials, lithium and other carbon, other light materials that are relatively easy to manufacture. And that would be an equivalent of going from conflict or blood diamonds to doing these lab grown. Because after all, a diamond is just pressurized carbon. You can actually make diamond in a little machine in your hand. It’s basically a little anvil. You turn a screw just with your hand pressure. It focuses that, um, that pressure down in a very small area and you can create tiny little diamonds yourself. And so there is an interesting example and the analogy between going to lab grown diamonds and these perovskites is actually a very direct analogy,

(Music Break) | 20:32

AW | 21:28 – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Daniel Kammen. He is a Professor of Energy at UC Berkeley. So Dan, why don’t you give us the feedback that you received. We’ve kind of heard what your mission was to change hearts and minds over there. Was it mission accomplished? Give us your feeling on this issue and how it was received in Dubai.

DK | 21:50 – So I think with all environmental conflicts, you never feel like you’ve actually fully succeeded. You feel like the, the reward for good work is just ongoing vigilance. And so in the case of trying to work with manufacturers and researchers around the transition away from cobalt in batteries that we do need, one of the really heartening features is that since the climate meeting in December, um, we’ve seen a number of companies, some very significant like VW and now it appears Toyota saying they are going to move away from lithium ion, which involves cobalt to lithium phosphate, which does not. And I have no idea to what degree our report or press interviews or basic lab science played a role. But I’d like to think that that package of thinking that says we can be intentional about the materials we choose and one of our metrics can, and in my own personal view, should be based around the environmental and the human rights, higher quality materials. And so I, I think this report played a role. There’s a lot more work to go and I think that we’re going to find there’s other materials coming where we’re going to discover other sorts of challenges and that this is a recipe for thinking sustainability more than it is like a one-shot victory. 

AW | 23:11 -You were asked by grist to grade COP and you gave it an incomplete because you said that the US-China Sunnylands agreement could reset the international climate investment and progress effort. Why don’t you explain what the Sunnylands agreement is and why it gives you hope? 

DK | 23:28 – So the process of the US and China thinking hard about climate issues actually has a significant backstory. It goes back before the COP 21 meeting in Paris. And it came out of a really important dialogue between President Xi and President Obama when they agreed to a deal in 2014 that I would say opened the way for the positive outcomes of COP 21 in Paris. And that agreement was that the US and China should each reduce their emissions. China agreed to become carbon neutral in 2060, which in my view is significantly too late. And the US agreed to become carbon neutral at some point, but to dramatically cut emissions by a third by 2030. Even though we’ve gone from President Obama to Mr. Trump and now to President Biden, we have had a process where the US through the drop in price for clean energy, this new inflation reduction act are actually doing fairly well. Not as well as I would like, but the US is making significant progress. China too is making progress. China is the world’s largest manufacturer of solar panels, wind turbines and batteries for electric vehicles. But China has not moved their carbon neutrality date forward. It still remains 2060, whereas President Biden has committed the US to a 2045 date. And that is in fact where we need these numbers to be. So all of that’s backstory to a meeting that was held between the chief US Climate negotiator, special presidential envoy for climate or spec. John Carey, my former boss at the State Department when I was signed envoy, and he was Secretary of State and Xi Jhu, his Chinese counterpart in November in central California at a very cleverly located place called Sunnylands. I think they worked hard to find that they came up with an agreement that the US and China need to work together. We have our differences around human rights and Uyghurs and around the wording and the Inflation Reduction Act. But the US and China agreed to again, work together. And the core of the agreement was that the globe should triple the amount of renewable energy installed by 2030. Right now, China is close to being on pace for that the US is not, and much of the rest of the world is quite far away. In fact, my lab just sent off a paper last week quantifying that China is actually closest to meeting this target, but no one’s really on pace for it. Now, if the Sunny Lands agreement is made serious, meaning the US and China put money into not only their own decarbonization at home like the US has done in the Inflation reduction Act, but I think more importantly the US and China work together to finance decarbonization in Africa, in Southeast Asia, in Latin America, something we both could do that would be monumental. And what was exciting to me was the Sunnylands agreement was announced just a week before the Climate Conference in Dubai. They announced in San Francisco at the Asia Pacific Summit. But what was disappointing to me was that neither President Xi nor President Biden showed up at Dubai to say at COP 28, this is our new North Star, this is our new direction and we’re going to make it happen. Both of them decided that they had done enough. They met in person in San Francisco that was non-trivial. Um, but you know, leaders around the world need to know that the two biggest economies and the two biggest oil and gas consumers are on the same page in terms of advancing this agenda. And that message did not happen. That’s why I gave in particular the US and incomplete because I think we said the right words, but now we have to follow through and I think we will. Um, we do have a bit of an election coming up this year, which is going to be fairly important in this regard. But I believe that if democracy wins in November, 2024 in the US that climate will also be a winner. 

AW | 27:54 – Daniel Kammen is a professor of energy at uc, Berkeley. Dan, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio. 

DK | 28:01 – Oh, it’s my pleasure to be on. Thank you so much.

AW | 28:17 – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Pink Floyd, Ella Fitzgerald and Talking Heads. To read a transcript of this show, go to SeaChangeRadio.com to stream, or download the show or subscribe to our podcast on our site or visit our archives to hear from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gavin Newsom, Stewart Brand, and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.