Critical Minerals

The green energy transition implies phasing out hydrocarbons and nuclear power with electricity coming from wind, solar and batteries.

The shift to a clean energy system is set to drive a significant increase in the demand for critical minerals, such as nickel, copper, cobalt and manganese. A typical electric car requires six times more critical minerals compared to a conventional car, and an onshore wind plant requires nine times more critical minerals than a gas-fired power plant.

Increasing extraction from terrestrial mines is possible. But these potential mine prospects are located in vulnerable regions of the world – such as rainforest areas – and there is an evident danger of disturbing or damaging wildlife and ecosystems in these areas. Terrestrial mines are also facing challenges related to declining mineral grades, tailings and waste. In addition, they are often linked to important ethical and geopolitical challenges.

read more about it in this 2021 IEA report

Mineral demand growth by sector

Mt

Electric Vehicles – mineral demand growth to 2050

Index (2020 = 1)

Deep sea minerals – global occurences

Three main deposit types of minerals exist: seabed massive sulphides which are found close to the spreading ridges, manganese crust and manganese nodules which are both found in the deeper part of the oceans.

Critical minerals are abundant in marine deposits and can secure supply with a low environmental footprint. Marine minerals have significant higher enrichment compared to terrestrial resources and both manganese crust and nodules have no toxic waste.

Largest remaining resources

Global distribution of marine minerals

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Seabed Massive Sulphides (SMS)

Forms on mid-ocean ridges, in back-arc basins and along submarine volcanic arcs. SMS deposits form through hydrothermal activity; cold sea water percolates down through the seafloor, is heated through geothermal energy, becomes buoyant and rises, dissolving metals and sulphides from the surrounding rocks.

Rapid precipitation of metal sulphides from their host hydrothermal fluid in tight systems leads to chimney formation, with chimney collapse and coalescence forming sulphide mounds.

They usually form in water depths between 1000 and 4000 metres and are active for several tens of thousand years. It is only the extinct SMS that are targeted for mining. The key minerals are copper and zinc plus potential high concentrations of gold and silver.

Manganese crust

Crust forms through precipitation on surfaces in the ocean like seamounts, ridges, and plateaus as pavements and coatings on rocks in areas that are kept sediment-free for millions of years.

Crusts are found typically at water depths of 400–7000 m. with the thickest and most metal-rich crusts occurring at depths of about 800–2500 m. Crusts vary in thickness from 1 to 260 mm and are generally thicker on older seamounts.

Key minerals are cobalt, nickel, copper, manganese and REE.

Manganese nodules

Occurs throughout the global ocean, predominantly on the surface of sediment-covered abyssal plains at water depths of approximately 3500 to 6500 m. Most nodules are partly submerged in the sediment and vary in diameter from 2 cm to 20 cm.

Manganese nodules grow by accumulation of Mn and Fe oxides around a nucleus. Unlike manganese crusts, nodules acquire metals from two sources ambient seawater (hydrogenetic) and sediment pore waters (diagenetic).

Key minerals are nickel, cobalt, copper and manganese.