President Biden recently invoked the Defense Production Act to boost supplies of the minerals needed to power electric vehicles and reduce America’s oil dependency. Yet, even with this welcome executive action, the U.S. can’t produce enough of some minerals, such as nickel. America must rely on undependable, often hostile foreign-controlled sources for these key materials. There is an alternative: finding politically safe, economically viable and ecologically responsible ways to get these minerals somewhere else, including the depths of the oceans.
Nickel is the metal currently most responsible for providing range in electric-vehicle batteries. Global nickel demand for batteries is forecast to grow 20 to 25 times by 2040, and market analysts expect significant shortages in two to three years. Russia is one of the largest suppliers of class 1 battery-grade nickel, and Chinese interests control production elsewhere in Asia, mostly underneath rainforests in the Philippines, New Caledonia and Indonesia.
To electrify half the cars and trucks Americans purchase by 2030, the Biden administration’s target, the U.S. will need to secure more than 650,000 tons of battery-grade nickel each year. Annual domestic nickel production amounts to about 18,000 tons. Recycling and conservation can go only so far. Securing new supplies of battery-grade nickel should be a priority for achieving America’s energy security goals.
Those supply options include vast sources of nickel contained in polymetallic nodules at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. The Clarion Clipperton Zone, between Mexico and Hawaii, contains nearly twice as much nickel (along with three times as much cobalt and significantly more manganese) than all the world’s land-based reserves combined. This small patch of seafloor—in total less than 0.5% of the global seafloor—could supply key battery metals to support electrifying the global passenger fleet several times over.
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