European Geologist Journal 49
Are the pan-European seas a promising source for critical metals supply? The project GeoERA-MINDeSEA
by Javier González1, Teresa Medialdea1, Henrik Schiellerup2, Irene Zananiri3, Pedro Ferreira4, Luis Somoza1, Xavier Monteys5 and the MINDeSEA Team
1Marine Geology Dv, Geological Survey of Spain (IGME), C/ Ríos Rosas 23, 28003 Madrid, Spain
2 Geological Survey of Norway (NGU)
3 Hellenic Survey of Geology & Mineral Exploration (HSGME), Greece
4 National Laboratory of Energy and Geology (LNEG), Portugal
5 Geological Survey Ireland (GSI)
Covering 15,000,000 km2, the pan-European seas represent a promising new frontier for the exploration of mineral resources and an enormous challenge in terms of research, technological innovation, environmental protection, spatial planning and social acceptance. The GeoERA-MINDeSEA project is an ERA-NET action (Horizon 2020) a transnational cooperative network of 12 geological surveys and marine institutes for investigation and exploration of seafloor mineral deposits in pan-European seas. MINDeSEA is producing cartography, datasets, genetic models and case studies to help the EC, stakeholders and society assess possibilities. These are based on detailed studies and compiled data on geology, geochemistry, mineralogy, and environmental and regulatory issues. Strategic and critical metals are being investigated in several seabed mineral deposits, looking for alternative sources to land-based mined deposits. MINDeSEA’s task is to identify areas for sustainable resourcing and information to support decision-making on management and marine spatial planning in pan-European seas as part of its core activities.
A major element in Europe’s long-term economic strategy is to ensure security of supply for strategic and critical metals as part of the Blue Growth Strategy, developing sectors that have a high potential for the creation of sustainable jobs and growth as seabed mining. Marine aggregates mining (sand and gravel) is one example of a long established activity in Europe (e.g., Germany, the United Kingdom, Belgium and the Netherlands) and represents more than 1900 deposits with 834 licenses for either exploration or extraction (European Commission, 2019a).
Covering more than 70% of the planet, seas and oceans represent a promising new frontier for the exploration and exploitation of mineral resources. Deep-sea deposits span a large diversity of environments and resource types, from hydrothermal deposits to crusts and nodules, and are particularly attractive for their polymetallic nature with high contents of rare and critical metals. Moreover, shallow-water resources such as marine placer deposits represent another source of many industrial materials, critical metals, and gems. The seabed mineral resources host the largest reserves on Earth for some metals like cobalt, tellurium, manganese, and the rare earth elements (Hein et al., 2013), critical for industry and required for a transition from a carbon-based to green-energy-based world (Sovacool et al., 2020) (Figure 1). The EC’s Blue Growth strategy estimated that “By 2030, 10% of the world’s minerals, including the sources for cobalt, copper and zinc could come from the ocean floor. Global annual turnover of deep sea mining can be expected to grow from virtually nothing to €10 billion by 2030” (page 10, section 5.4, European Commission, 2012). In addition, materials from recycling seabed mining related wastes, like silica coming from ferromanganese deposit exploitation and processing, will contribute to the circular economy.
Figure 1: Above: comparison between the terrestrial and marine resources for critical and strategic metals. Below: the European Commission 2017 CRM list with metals enriched in the marine deposits marked in blue.
The global ocean can play a key role in the mitigation of climate change, but also in improving the sustainable use of mineral resources. These issues include judicious consideration among the fisheries and minerals industries, offshore wind production, and the preservation of aquatic environments and ecosystems in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (United Nations, 2020). Extracting minerals from the deep sea represents an enormous scientific and technological challenge for humankind, and one of the biggest challenges is to ensure the protection of the marine environment and its ecosystems.
Considerable improvement in our knowledge of the oceans and seas is necessary to develop a sustainable “Blue Economy” and in obtaining social license. But seabed geology and ecosystems are widely unexplored, and new geological and environmental studies are required to address the impacts of potential mining activities. New developments focused on new technologies for deep-sea exploration and mining will be required. In addition, a regulatory framework for minerals extraction and marine spatial planning is needed for the development of the seabed mining sector.
The International Seabed Authority (ISA) is working on exploitation regulations that will permit the extraction of minerals in areas beyond national jurisdictions, the so-called “Area” (Figure 2). Thirty contractors have entered into 15-year contracts with ISA for exploration for polymetallic nodules, polymetallic sulphides, and cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts on the deep seabed of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans (ISA, 2020). Over the 15 years these exploration areas will be subject of relinquishment and will be smaller by the end of the contract (not more than 2500 km2 in the case of polymetallic sulphides and not more than 1000 km2 in the case of cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts).
Recently, EU research programmes are funding projects to increase knowledge about seabed minerals in its waters, marine minerals exploration, extraction technologies, and environmental issues. One EU programme, GeoERA (“Establishing the European Geological Surveys Research Area to deliver a Geological Service for Europe”) – an ERA-NET action under Horizon 2020 – funds transnational projects contributing to the best use and management of the subsurface (Gessel et al., 2018). One GeoERA-funded project is MINDeSEA.
Figure 2: Global map of seabed minerals exploration present status. The stars represent areas under national jurisdiction. Modified from Hein et al. (2013).
Contributing to pan-European seabed minerals knowledge: The MINDeSEA project
Eight GeoERA partners and four non-funded organisations with a common interest in exploration and investigation on seafloor mineral deposits have collaborated in the project GeoERA-MINDeSEA. The geological survey organisations of Spain, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and Ukraine handle coastal, marine geological investigation and mineral resources studies and mapping in their respective countries. The non-funded participants – the Instituto Português do Mar e da Atmosfera; the United States Geological Survey; the All-Russia Scientific Research Institute for Geology and Mineral Resources of the Ocean; and the Geosciences Institute from Spain – maintain important databases and host internationally-known experts on seafloor mineralisation and hydrothermal systems.
The project focuses on an integrative metallogenetic study of the principal types of marine mineral resources (polymetallic sulphides, ferromanganese crusts, phosphorites, marine placers and polymetallic nodules) in the seabed under the jurisdiction of European coastal States (Figure 3). The geographical scope of the project includes all the regional basins around Europe comprising the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans, the Mediterranean Sea, the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea.
The MINDeSEA project is compiling data and genetic models for all of these deposit types based on extensive studies carried out previously, which include geophysical surveys, sampling stations, underwater photography and ROV surveys, and mineralogical, geochemical and isotopic studies. It builds on previously and currently developed pan-European and national databases and expands strategic and CRM knowledge through compiling mineral potential and metallogenic studies of CRW resources in pan-European seas.
The objectives of the project include characterising deposit types under the jurisdiction of European coastal and their trace element content, evaluating supply potential, developing harmonised mineral maps and datasets of seabed deposits, producing mineral potential and prospectivity maps, proposing pilot zones, analysing present-day exploration and exploitation status in terms of regulation, legislation, environmental impacts and future directions and extending state-of-the-art knowledge and information on submarine minerals, metallogenic studies, standards and technologies across the European community.
Seabed mineral deposits in the pan-European seas: an update
The pan-European seas cover about 15 million km2 in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans and the Mediterranean, Baltic, and Black Seas, from shallow waters up to 6,000 m water depth. The preliminary MINDeSEA results show the potential of the pan-European seas for critical metals according to the criticality list of the European Commission (2017) (Figure 3) and the enormous gaps of information covering vast marine areas. More than 600 mineral occurrences and 1,045 individual analysed samples are reported in the MINDeSEA database. The dataset contains five principal levels of information with multiple attributes for each occurrence: geographical, metallogenic, economic, geochemical and environmental data. A reference database supports the mineral occurrences with more than 200 records, including peer- reviewed papers, oceanographic expedition reports, PhD theses, maps and datasets.
Figure 3: MINDeSEA compilation map by March 2020 of seabed mineral occurrences in the pan-European seas. A) ROV image on the sulphide chimneys from the Moytirra hydrothermal field, 3000 m water depth, expedition EXPLOSEA 2; B) Ferromanganese crusts and phosphorites recovered in the Canary Island seamounts, 1000-2500 m water depth, expedition DRAGO 0511; C) Cross-section of polymetallic nodule cluster from the Baltic Sea, 60–200 m water depth; D) Gold nugget collected in sand beach placers enriched in heavy and resistant minerals from the Aegean Sea.
Seafloor polymetallic sulphides and metalliferous sediments precipitating from hot hydrothermal solutions and plumes are forming today offshore of the Azores Archipelago (Portugal) and in the Arctic (Norway, Denmark) and the Mediterranean volcanic arcs (Italy and Greece) (Figure 3A). They are among the most important marine resources for copper, zinc, silver, and gold. In addition, hydrothermal deposits may contain economic grades of tin, barium, indium, bismuth, tellurium, gallium, and germanium. Seamounts, submarine volcanoes and banks in the Macaronesia sector (Portugal and Spain) and the Arctic ridges (Norway, Denmark, Iceland) show high potential for Fe-Mn crusts, rich in energy-critical elements like cobalt but also tellurium, rare earth elements, and manganese. Fe-Mn crusts are accompanied by phosphorites on the seafloor of continental shelves and slopes along the western continental margins of Portugal and Spain (Figure 3B). These marine phosphorites concentrate rare earth elements and yttrium in addition to phosphate. Shallow-water concretions and nodules from the Arctic (Norway, Russia), Baltic (Sweden, Poland, Finland, Russia, Estonia, Germany), and Black Sea (Ukraine, Romania) represent potential targets for metals exploration and environmental studies (Figure 3C). Finally, placer deposits of chemically resistant, physically durable minerals have been discovered in shallow-water settings (<50 m water depth on estuaries, deltas, beaches) linked to the weathering of onshore rocks and ore deposits from the Variscan Belt in UK, France, Portugal and Spain; the Eastern Mediterranean (Albania, Greece and Cyprus), the Black Sea (Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria), the Arctic Ocean (Russia, Norway, Denmark) and the Baltic Sea (Poland, Latvia). Accumulations of heavy minerals include monazite, ilmenite, rutile, zircon, garnet, gold, diamonds, cassiterite and magnetite (Figure 3D).
In December 2018 MINDeSEA produced the first pan-European compilation map of “energy-critical elements” based on ferromanganese deposits (González et al., 2018). The map reports occurrences and deposits for cobalt and lithium and can be downloaded at https://geoera.eu/projects/mindesea2/. This map and other MINDeSEA products were included in the 2019 EU Blue Economy Report (European Commission, 2019a) and will be updated with new data in the upcoming 2020 Report (Figure 4).
Figure 4: MINDeSEA pan-European map of energy-critical metals cobalt and lithium based on ferromanganese occurrences and deposits of nodules and crusts. Occurrences refer to Li2O average content <660 g/t, potential resources <5,000 Mt, and Co average content <500 g/t. No up-to-date information is given about resource potential.
For further information, see the GeoERA-MINDeSEA website (https://geoera.eu/projects/mindesea2/), a dedicated website (https://geoeramindesea.wixsite.com/mindesea), or social media (https://twitter.com/MINDeSEA, https://www.facebook.com/mindesea.mindesea.9).
This work has been supported by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, GeoERA (Grant Agreement Nº 731166, project GeoE.171.001). We thank Pedro Madureira, Antje Wittenberg and editors for comments that helped improve this paper.
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This article has been published in European Geologist Journal 49 – Mineral raw materials in Europe – Chances and challenges for domestic production
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