Critical Minerals

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, manganese and rare earth elements (REE).

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 the need for critical minerals in this 2021 IEA report

Mineral demand growth by sector


Electric Vehicles – mineral demand growth to 2050

Index (2020 = 1)

Deep sea minerals – global occurrences

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

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

Largest remaining resources

Global distribution of deep sea minerals

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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. 

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.

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 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 thousands of years. It is only extinct SMS that are targeted for mining.

Key minerals are copper and zinc plus potential high concentrations of gold and silver.