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Bloomberg Article: Cobalt's Supply Salvation Could Lie 3 Miles Under the Sea

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    Cobalt'sSupply Salvation Could Lie 3 Miles Under the Sea

    Former Rio Tinto CEO joins with veteran ocean treasure hunter

    EV industry seeking ways to break reliance on just one country

    By Bloomberg News

    The cobalt neededto power next decade’s electric-vehicle revolution could lie in golf ball-sizedlumps that carpet areas of the ocean floor bigger than Brazil.

    Former Rio TintoGroup CEO Tom Albanese has joined a veteran shipwreck explorer inprojects to dredge manganese nodules that can lie more than 5 kilometers (3.1miles) underwater. With the auto industry set to adopt electric power over thenext decade, the goal is to open up a major new source of supply for cobaltused in rechargeable batteries.

    “Ten or 12 years ago, I was a skeptic on this and I said it would not happen in my lifetime,” Albanese said in an interview at a cobalt conference in Hong Kong. “I now believe I was wrong. I think we’re five to 10 years away from it being a practical source of cobalt.”

    While the concept ofmining the deep sea isn’t new, and projects have been around since at least the1970s, there’s been no viable commercial production. Plans have met withskepticism on grounds including technical constraints, environmental hurdles,and costs. But the prospect of constrained supply from land-based minescontinues to generate interest from companies to governments. CRU Group hasalso highlighted the risk of depending on the Democratic Republic ofCongo, which accounts for 75% of global production.

    With the technology required to mine now ready, the main practical hurdles arelegal complexities and environmental concerns, according to Greg Stemm,head of CIC and founder and chairman of Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc.

    “We work at the4,000- and 5,000-meter level day-in and day-out,” said Stemm, who has more thanthree decades’ experience plumbing ocean depths for shipwrecks and minerals.Much of the resistance to deep sea mining comes from ignorance ormisinformation on environmental grounds, he said.

    EnvironmentConcerns

    Commercial interestin the industry has grown rapidly in recent years, according to theInternational Seabed Authority, which organizesand controlsmineral-related activities in areas beyond nationaljurisdictions, or about 54% of the world’s total ocean area. Non-governmentalorganizations have raised concerns about the potentially irreversibleloss of marine biodiversity due to deep sea mining.

    “The biggestuncertainty is the regulation for actually exploiting those, because the work thathas been done by biologists suggests we are only beginning to understand whatthose environments are like,” Richard Herrington, a professor and actingdirector of science at the U.K.’s Natural History Museum. That institutionholds the very first nodules discovered by the19th-century Challenger expedition that launched modern oceanography.

    “Theredoes need to be thorough test mining to look more closely at the at thebiological rebound” from operations, Herrington said in an interview afterpresenting a survey of the world’s cobalt deposits to the conference in HongKong on May 15. “I’m not saying it’s not going to happen, but I do think theyare quite optimistic on the timing.”

    Thenodules have a known concentration across four main areas, accordingto the World Ocean Review, published by a group of international academics,researchers and NGOs. The biggest covers 9 million square kilometers betweenthe west coast of Mexico and Hawaii, while there are others off Peru near theCook Islands to the east of Australia, or in the Indian Ocean.

    CIC istalking with several governments on potential projects, Stemm said, decliningto give details. They will prefer to work within established national economiczones, rather than in unclaimed areas subject to much more complex arbitrationunder the International Seabed Authority. As well as Albanese, the consortiumincludes Royal Boskalis Westminster N.V., the world’s biggest dredging company.

 
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