Diamonds are forever… This phrase may bring the famous James Bond spy movie to our minds, but the reality is, our Earth’s crust and deep-water ecosystems that gave birth to these magnificent stones are under severe threat of destruction.
Diamonds are made from carbon placed under high pressure, but that carbon can come from different sources: either organic carbon, from once-living matter, or inorganic carbon – like carbonate minerals, which are commonly found in rocks. Diamonds are mined in several ways: Open-pit and underground mining where layers of sand and rock are removed, and diamonds mined from the earth’s crust; Alluvial mining occurs in riverbeds and beaches from diamond deposits or Marine mining where diamonds are extracted from the deep seabed.
It is not just diamonds, but the ocean floor and several riverbeds contain millions of polymetallic nuggets (black lumps looking like coal) that are rich in minerals such as manganese, cobalt, nickel and copper.
Marine mining of these metallic morsels is in exponential demand as large amounts of these minerals are required to build electric cars, produce high-tech applications such as in smartphones and green technologies such as wind turbines, solar panels and electric storage batteries.
Alluvial mining in Orange river in Namibia
The Orange river, South Africa’s longest waterway has been called ‘The River of Diamonds’, as over the millennia, stones from the heart of Africa have been carried its length, passing through the delta and into the ocean, where strong currents carry them northwards and cast them up onto the beaches.
Crawler ships are custom built mining vessels that dredge material from the riverbeds and this rich sediment containing precious gems, minerals are dumped overboard and scoured for diamonds by machines with the left-over gravel returned to the ocean. Marine species such as whales, dolphins and seals , entire habitats of aquatic animals are heavily impacted as it takes anywhere between two to ten years for the seabed to recover due to heavy machinery disturbance. The Ramsar convention is an international treaty to conserve wetlands and the ‘Orange River Mouth’ on the border of South Africa and Namibia off the Atlantic coast is a protected site with mining prohibited . But despite all these environmental guardrails, mining operations continue downstream across the Atlantic coast with Namibia coast generating around a million carats annually.
The largest diamond producing countries are Russia, Canada, Botswana, South Africa with Australia leaving this list as their largest mine (Argyle mine) is closed due to depletion of its reserves.
India’s deep ocean mining:
India has embarked on deep ocean missions in the central Indian Ocean for its mineral and energy security. Experiments would focus on exploring and identifying potential sites of “multi-metal hydrothermal sulphides mineralization along the Indian Ocean mid-oceanic ridges.” Technologies for deep-sea mining and a manned submersible will be developed to carry three people to a depth of 6,000 meters in the ocean with a suite of scientific sensors and tools.
While collecting the metallic nodules from the deep-sea , marine organisms at the top layer would die, habitats altered and destroyed, and scientists are working on a design that can incorporate a balance between conservation of marine areas and development of mining technology.
Environmental costs of Electric Vehicles (EV):
All eyes are now on deep-water mining as the transition to clean energy has been complex with a purposeful shift from ‘dirty’ coal /gas to mining exclusive metals from the deep ocean needed for electric vehicles.
Minerals especially cobalt, lithium and nickel are the core ingredients of electric vehicle batteries. Electric vehicles (EV) do consume far less minerals when compared to diesel/petrol vehicles and this study highlights that over its lifetime, any car that runs on traditional engines burns around 300-400 times more than the total quantity of battery cell minerals in EVs.
The good news is that technology has evolved so much that less raw material is needed to produce each kWh of an electric battery. Also recycling of battery materials ensure that primary demand for virgin materials (mined underground or from waterways) will reduce pressure on mining the environment. The table below shows top producers of raw materials for EV’s, and cobalt production is expected to zoom 50% by 2050 to meet turbines and battery requirements.
Be it diamonds, precious metals or minerals from land or water, the demand for such raw materials will continue to see an exponential growth due to the sheer size of the world’s population that require latest technologies in electronics, solar panels, wind turbines, and electric cars to name a few. And it is quite impossible to stop mining or fossil fuel extraction as the world runs on this energy and transition to cleaner fuel is a long-drawn journey.
Development and conservation of the environment to run hand-in-hand as countries race for strategic supremacy to secure international waters that make deep-water mining commercially viable. Another interesting observation is that countries that are ‘resource and mineral’ wealthy often have weaker institutions and spend less on education and are more corrupt. So, it is critical that revenue earned from raw materials are ploughed back into health, education and infrastructure.
Land resources are running out and soon deep-water resources will also be depleted if we do not strike that environmental balance.