May 27, 2024

Underwater robots could usher in a high-tech future for deep sea mining

It may look like something from a low budget science-fiction movie, but this underwater robot could help accelerate a high-tech future. 

The batteries that power electric vehicles are made from various metals, including copper, cobalt and nickel. The materials are also used to build solar panels, wind turbines and smartphones. While the metals can be used to develop environmentally-friendly technology, the mines where those materials are found are sometimes plagued with environmental or human rights concerns

A vast supply of those materials exists in an unlikely place: The ocean floor.

And some believe it’s worth mining the deep blue sea for these elements, while others warn it would destroy a crucial eco-system. Renee Grogan, the creator of Impossible Metals, a company studying sustainable underwater mining solutions, believes the company’s robot prototype Eureka could be the solution. 

“We need to be able to ensure that the ecosystem on the seafloor remains intact,” Grogan said. 

In a test run, CBS News watched as Eureka was lowered into the Canadian side of Lake Huron. The robot’s retractable arm, driven by artificial intelligence, plucked rocks that mimic nodules of metals from the bottom of the lake. 

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Eureka during a test run. 

CBS Mornings


“The claws themselves are driven by the AI and say ‘Take it, leave it, take it,'” Grogan explained. 

However, the shallow water prototype is just the first step in the company’s journey. The long-term goal is to deploy a fleet of underwater vehicles, each costing about $5 million, which could travel four miles underwater. The cameras and arms would hover over the ocean floor without touching the sand, only collecting the valuable nodules that do not contain animal products. 

The high-tech process is designed to do as little damage as possible, and is like using tweezers instead of a bulldozer. Typical deep sea mining involves dredging the bottom of the ocean with giant robotic shovels. 

That kind of work could soon begin if the United Nations-established International Seabed Authority grants mining permits in what’s known as the Clarion-Clipperton Zone. The zone, which contains about 2 million square miles of the Pacific Ocean stretching from Hawaii to Mexico, is rich with mineral deposits. However, using this method there would essentially vacuum the ocean floor and destroy the habitats of more than 5,000 deep sea species. 

Douglas McCauley, an ocean scientist at University of California Santa Barbara, is one of hundreds of scientists who have spoken out against this type of deep sea mining, warning that it could crush marine life and stir up toxic plumes of sediment that could spread throughout the ocean, impacting fisheries that humans depend on. 

“We can’t try to save the planet by breaking the planet in the process, right?” McCauley said. “Those several years of mining are going to cause centuries of damage.” 

When asked whether a more pinpointed method, like the one Impossible Metals is developing, would be possible, McCauley was skeptical. 

“To do it tactically, with that kind of precision, is going to be hard or perhaps even impossible,” he said. 

But Grogan isn’t daunted by the odds. She said she thinks her company is about “halfway down the path” to a future where the robots are used, and said that she expects the technology to be deployed at a commercial scale within five years. That might even result in re-visiting the “Impossible” part of the company’s name.

“I’m looking forward to the day where we can just, yeah, take those two (letters) off, and look at that – it’s possible,” she said. 

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