Copper to go into electric cars, copper for the grid, copper for solar panels and the innards of power generators, copper for the thick, long cables taking power down from wind turbines. Nearly everything comes back to the red metal.
However, copper has always been an afterthought when it comes to what lies under the sea, for a couple of reasons.
The first is that we are pretty good at getting copper out of the ground, so up until recently few geologists had given much serious thought to the idea of ‘peak copper’, whereby we reach the limits of what we can or are willing to remove from the surface.
The second is that while there is plenty of copper in those polymetallic nodules – indeed at around 230 million tonnes there is enough copper in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone to keep the entire world supplied for a decade – the numbers are not quite as game changing as for cobalt or nickel.
In part, though, this is because the richest copper reserves are actually to be found somewhere else: in the remains of black smokers, vents where volcanically heated, chemical-rich water billows out from the seabed along submerged mountain ranges like the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.
Were you to cut one of those black smokers off, you would find all sorts of materials: iron, zinc, selenium and a crystalline ore called chalcopyrite, which can be up to 20pc copper.
Once the black smoker has become inactive and collapsed, which happens after a few thousand years, it leaves behind some of the richest copper ores in the world.
While we have a pretty good handle on how many polymetallic nodules there probably are on the seafloor, no one has the faintest idea how many of these so-called seafloor massive sulphides there are.
There have been efforts to try to extrapolate their numbers, based on how many black smokers you tend to find up and down the mid-ocean ridges, and they are not especially encouraging. One estimate along those lines suggested that all the world’s seafloor massive sulphides might yield maybe 30 million tonnes of copper and zinc.
But what if they’re wrong? What if they’ve underestimated the prevalence of these sites, not just by a little but by many, many multiples?
Hunting for treasure
That, ultimately, is why Bram and his team have come here to the middle of the ocean to examine a couple of mounds most other geologists couldn’t be bothered with.
They have brought with them an enormous deep-sea drilling rig, one of the few in the world capable of withstanding the pressures and strains of working 3,000 metres beneath sea level. For a month, it drilled deep into the seabed, collecting unusually long rock cores and helping generate seismic surveys of the mounds. The early results, says Bram, “were quite remarkable”.
“The amount of mineral deposits there is astonishing. I think it’s going to completely change our understanding of how much copper there is on the seabed.”
Since the research is still continuing at the time of writing, it is too early to say precisely where this leaves estimates of our
ocean-floor resources. But given this one small spot under the Sargasso Sea – an area excluded from those conventional estimates of sub-sea copper resources – contains tens of millions of tonnes of ores, the chances are they may be way, way out.
“You could easily be looking at 20, 30, 40 times more than those assessments,” says Bram.
That might imply deep-sea copper resources of well over a billion tonnes – a staggering amount, far more than our entire terrestrial reserves. Enough, certainly, to supply the entire world with all its copper for many decades.
Which of course raises the question: what’s the catch?
Journey into the new frontier
The convention centre where the International Seabed Authority (ISA) holds its meetings feels a little like the set of a Roger Moore-era James Bond film. Over there is the line of phone booths where Bond makes his discreet call back to London before confronting Blofeld’s henchmen. There is the plate-glass window, just waiting to be smashed through for an escape, via speedboat, out of Kingston Bay.
The wallpaper is garish, the chairs look like museum pieces from the sixties or seventies and the desks in the cavernous main hall have buttons everywhere: for intercoms, for voting, for ejector seats?
That the place feels a little like a time capsule, undisturbed by the outside world for decades, is quite fitting, for one could say much the same thing about the ISA, the United Nations institution whose job it is to manage the majority of the world’s ocean floor, determining who has the right to those minerals beneath the waves.
The rule about where the ISA’s jurisdiction kicks in is quite simple: any piece of water that is 200 nautical miles beyond any country’s shore qualifies as part of the ‘high seas’ – an area that is, according to the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the “common heritage of mankind”.
I know all of this because I was pointedly handed a copy when I arrived at the ISA’s library, from a large bookcase full of identical copies of the convention.
That makes the high seas a sort of diplomatic and economic grey area, which means there is little to stop us using them as a vast communal dustbin (we do) or overfishing them (we do).
So, what happens when people start to try mining them? Can they simply send diggers down and start grinding and blasting?
Are there any limits on extraction or, as with the fishing trade, is this essentially the Wild West? These questions have an added piquancy these days given that submersible technology is now adequate enough to do this stuff.
For a long time, deep-sea mining was seen as a pipe dream. The commercial case is still yet to be proven but no one doubts any longer that it can physically be done.
Indeed, many wonder whether some of the more secretive resource-focused nations – places like China and Russia – are already quietly at it.