★ Team 5C: A lifecycle approach to deep sea mining

The deep sea mining challenge was a particularly exciting one for our team as it allowed us to explore not only the environmental impacts of mining, but the economic and social impacts.

The advent of the deep sea mining of polymetallic nodules is unique in that there is opportunity for careful and deliberate management of the industry prior to extraction. Whilst there will inevitably be some environmental impact, the need for metals found within these nodules is key for advancing green technologies and renewable energy resources. Our team were particularly passionate about minimising the impacts of the industry upon the fragile marine ecosystems that inhabit prospective mining sites, and this was quickly highlighted as a vital part of our solution. Our solution seeks to ensure a foundation to the industry that is both sustainable and economically viable, whilst helping prepare for a green future.

The typical ore composition of a polymetallic nodule is considerably higher than that found in terrestrial mine sites. These metals are widely used in rechargeable batteries and tech products.

A flagship of the scheme research and development would be Artificial-Intelligence-assisted monitoring of prospective regions, built on a common machine learning software that separates regions of particular high biodiversity and vulnerability to extraction from those with a high extraction to impact ratio. This software would be built by expert data science groups external to the industry to avoid associated bias, such as through a Kaggle competition. Low-carbon technologies such as gliders would deploy the software during the mining process.

Artificial-Intelligence tech and low-carbon remote-controlled vehicles would be used to assess prospect sites for environmental vulnerability.

Ongoing monitoring of mining impacts would begin with a 6-month trial period to assess the integrity of the practice. Furthermore, noncompliance with established thresholds regarding ecosystem degradation and environmental impacts would result in fines and/or loss of license. Ultimately, mining companies would employ a common approach framework built from low-carbon and low-bias technologies, producing a sustainable product. The product would be given an internationally recognised stamp of approval (e.g. Lifecycle approved), indicating that the product that adheres to high environmental regulations and an economically responsible framework.

The team worked extremely effectively together, bringing a diverse range of backgrounds and skills that produced an exciting approach to a challenging question. Everyone played a key role to make the project a success and we had a lot of fun in the process. Special thanks goes to Sophie Miocevich for being a fantastic facilitator and keeping Team 5C on track throughout the process. We’d also like to thank the fantastic coordinators and organisers of the enviroSPRINT 2021 event, and the inspiring deep sea mining experts who brought brilliant perspectives to the discussion!

By Rhiannon Jones, Team 5C communicator (@rhiofthesea)