The Future of Technology is Hiding on the Ocean Floor

By Maddie Stone on at

In March 1968, a Soviet Golf II submarine carrying nuclear ballistic missiles exploded and sank 1,500 nautical miles northwest of Hawaii. Five months later, the US government discovered the wreckage—and decided to steal it. So began Project AZORIAN, one of the most absurdly ambitious operations the CIA has ever conceived.

The potential payoff of Project AZORIAN was tremendous—a detailed look at Soviet weapons capabilities, and maybe some highly coveted cryptographic equipment. But the 1,750-tonne submarine had sunk to a depth of 16,500 feet, and a massive recovery ship was needed to haul it up. So the CIA recruited Howard Hughes to provide a cover story that would explain why it was building a 619-foot-long vessel.

Hughes, the story went, was going to mine manganese nodules—potato-sized rocks that form naturally on the abyssal plains—through his holding company Summa Corporation. A billionaire industrialist building a crazy new ship to seek treasure on the ocean floor? It sounded plausible enough, and the public bought it.

“At the time, people didn’t realise this was all a big ploy,” oceanographer Frank Sansone of the University of Hawaii at Manoa told Gizmodo. “What’s fascinating is that the CIA’s cover story set up a whole line of research about manganese nodules.”

Over the years and decades to come, private industries would discover that manganese nodules contain tremendous quantities of rare earth metals—precious elements at the core of our smartphones, computers, defence systems, and clean energy technologies. We have an endless need for these metals, and limited land-based supplies. Now, forty years after that CIA plot, we’re on the verge of an underwater gold rush. One that could, one day, allow us to tap into vast rare earth reserves at the bottom of the ocean.

“You can basically supply all the rare earths you need from the deep sea,” John Wiltshire, director of Hawaii’s Undersea Research Lab told Gizmodo. “All of the technology needed to do so is now in some form of development.”

But even if we desperately want to, mining the seafloor for rare earths isn’t going to be easy. Like Project AZORIAN, it’s going to be fraught with technical challenges and enormous risks.

The term “rare earth” is misleading. A group of seventeen chemically similar elements—including the 15 lanthanide metals, scandium, and yttrium—rare earths are actually plentiful in Earth’s crust. Cerium is more abundant than lead, and even the least common rare earths are hundreds of times more plentiful than gold.

The Future of Technology Is Hiding on the Ocean Floor
Clockwise from top centre: praseodymium, cerium, lanthanum, neodymium, samarium, and gadolinium. Image: Wikimedia

But because of their geochemical properties, rare earths don’t tend to form the metal-rich ores that make mining economical. Some minerals, like the bastnäsite found in the only rare earth mine in the US, can contain up to a few percent rare earth oxides. More often, rare earths are dispersed at vanishingly low concentrations. To get at them, huge volumes of rock are crushed, then subjected to physical separation, caustic acids, and blazing heat. It’s a costly, labour intensive process, and it produces an unholy amount of radioactive waste.

We don’t mine rare earths because it’s easy, but because we need them.“The technology sector is completely dependent on these elements,” Alex King, director of the Critical Materials Institute, told Gizmodo. “They play a very unique role.”

There are innumerable ways these metals make our tech faster, lighter, more durable, and more efficient. Take europium, used as a red phosphor in cathode ray tubes and LCD displays. It costs £1,416 a kilo, and there are no substitutes. Or erbium, which acts as a laser amplifier in fibre optic cables. It costs £708 a kilo, and there are no substitutes. Yttrium is sprinkled in the thermal coatings of jet aircraft engines to shield other metals from intense heat. Neodymium is the workhorse behind the high-performance magnets found in nearly every hard disk drive, audio speaker, wind turbine generator, cordless tool, and electric vehicle motor.

The list goes on. Cancer treatment drugs. MRI machines. Nuclear control rods. Camera lenses. Superconductors. Rare earths are essential to such a bevy of technologies that a shortage would, according to the Natural Resources Council, “have a major negative impact on our quality of life.”

That reality makes the US government very worried. Because today, we’re entirely dependent on rare earth imports. And most of those imports come from China.

For decades, an American company called Molycorp produced most of the world’s rare earths, at a mine in Mountain Pass, California. But by the mid-1980s, enormous rare earth deposits were being discovered in inner Mongolia and southern China. With cheap labour and virtually no environmental regulation, Chinese mining companies were able to undercut the US industry throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. Unable to remain competitive and facing public criticism over its environmental impact, Molycorp shut down its mining operation in 2002. By 2010, China controlled 97 per cent of the market.

Then China started flexing its muscles. First, it slashed rare earth export quotas, restricting the global supply. In September 2010, a maritime border dispute prompted the Chinese government to temporarily suspend all rare earth exports to Japan. These events sent shockwaves through the international market. Rare earth prices soared as technology companies quickly filled inventories to protect themselves from a future supply disruption. Economist Paul Krugman denounced US policymakers for allowing China to acquire “a monopoly position exceeding the wildest dreams of Middle Eastern oil-fuelled tyrants.”

The Future of Technology Is Hiding on the Ocean Floor
Production of rare earth oxides from 1950 to 2000. Image: Haxel et a. 2002

Six years on, fears of China’s rare earth dominance wound up being unfounded. The scare motivated other countries to ramp up their rare earth production, breaking China’s stranglehold. In late 2014, the World Trade Organization ruled against China for improper trade practices, compelling the government to abolish its rare earth quotas entirely. Prices plummeted.

Nevertheless, fear of a future rare earth shortage has had lasting effects on US policy, prompting the Department of Energy to pour millions into basic research on reducing our use of rare earths and recovering them from existing products. Some industries have cut back—Tesla doesn’t use rare earths in its batteries or motors—but for other applications, that isn’t yet feasible. And demand for these metals is only going to grow.

“In an economy where the use of rare earths is growing, you cannot recycle your way out of trouble,” King said. “Eventually, there will have to be new mines.”

In the shadowy fringes of the US intelligence community, tensions were running high. It was the summer of 1974, and after six years of preparation, the CIA’s submarine salvage operation was finally on. The Hughes Glomar Explorer, a 36,000-tonne beast of a ship designed to pull an entire submarine to the surface from 20,000 feet under, was like nothing anyone had ever built. Trap doors opened below the water line into the middle of the ocean. A three-mile retractable pile system, outfitted with a claw-like capture vehicle, would descend to the seafloor and haul up the Soviet vessel.

The Future of Technology Is Hiding on the Ocean Floor
The Hughes Glomar Explorer. Image: Wikimedia

The operation wound up being a major disappointment. As the submarine was being lifted to the surface, it snapped in two. Some two thirds of the wreckage, including nuclear missiles and naval code books, are said to have plunged back to the seafloor. Aside from the bodies of six USSR naval officers, it’s unclear what the Hughes Glomar Explorer hauled up. As Wiltshire told Gizmodo, “There are at least three different versions of this story going around. We’ll never know exactly how much they brought back.”

The CIA considered a second recovery mission. But before it could get approval, reporter Jack Anderson, who had been on Project AZORIAN’s trail for months, broke the story on national TV. Front-page stories revealing the truth about the “mining” operation soon appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and The New York Times.

Subsequent recovery missions were scrapped, but Ocean Minerals Company, the consortium led by Lockheed Martin that had developed mining technology to recover the sub, spent the next few years steering the Hughes Glomar Explorer around the Clarion-Clipperton Zone—a 3.5 million square mile swath of the eastern Pacific—doing deep ocean mining experiments.

“The CIA built ocean mining equipment that actually worked,” Wiltshire said. “Ocean Minerals Company went on to mine manganese nodules, and got a boatload through the early 1980s.” The expeditions drew attention to the riches on the seafloor, and a number of other government agencies and private companies started sponsoring their own deep ocean mining efforts.

The Future of Technology Is Hiding on the Ocean Floor
A manganese nodule collected in 1982 from the Pacific. Image: Wikimedia

Since the 1960s, mining companies have been attracted to manganese nodules mainly for their nickel, copper, and cobalt. But along the way, geologists learned that the rocks also contain rare earth oxides—in particular, the very rare and very expensive ones. “All the big land-based deposits in the world are almost solely light rare earths,” Jim Hein, an ocean minerals specialist with the US Geological Survey, told Gizmodo. “Deep ocean deposits have a much higher percentage of heavy rare earths. That’s the key difference.”

At first blush, the concentration of rare earths in manganese nodules—roughly 0.1 per cent—seems too low for commercial viability. But according to Mike Johnston, CEO of the deep ocean mining company Nautilus Minerals, rare earths can be co-extracted along with other valuable ores.

“What these rocks are is essentially a manganese sponge that has soaked up a bunch of other metals,” Johnston told Gizmodo. “To extract those other metals out, you have to break bonds, either chemically or with high heat. Once you’ve done that, you can theoretically just extract each of the different metals, including rare earths.”

Today, the global rare earth industry is producing a little over 100,000 tonnes of metals a year. In the Clarion Clipperton Zone alone, there are an estimated 15 million tonnes of rare earth oxides locked away in manganese nodules.

The question is not whether the seafloor has rare earths. It’s whether we can get at them in a way that makes business sense.

It’s been forty years since Project AZORIAN jumpstarted the deep ocean mining industry. We’ve not only discovered a potential fortune in manganese nodules, but a slew of other tantalizing resources, including sulphide deposits formed by underwater volcanoes, and deep sea ferromanganese crusts, which also contain rare earths.

But as of now, not a single company has begun to mine seafloor minerals commercially.

The open ocean is no longer the Wild West. In the decades since the Hughes Glomar Explorer first set sail, a UN-backed Law of the Sea Convention was enacted to regulate industry on the high seas. As a result, a group called the International Seabed Authority (ISA) is responsible for delineating deep sea mining zones and doling out permits in international waters.

To date, more than a dozen companies have received exploration licenses to prospect manganese nodules in the Clarion Clipperton Zone, but nobody has been issued an actual mining permit—yet. First, the ISA is preparing regulations to prevent the ecological shit show that usually ensues when humans try to get their hands on a new chunk of Earth’s raw materials.

The Future of Technology Is Hiding on the Ocean Floor
Exploration areas designated for mining companies in the Clarion Clipperton Zone in 2013. Image: ISA

And indeed, many ecologists are downright horrified by the prospect of profit-hungry corporations scraping, digging, and chopping up fragile seafloor ecosystems for precious metals. “You’re talking 100 percent habitat destruction in the area you mine,” Wiltshire said. “And because these are thin deposits, you’re mining a large area.”

We think of the deep ocean as a cold, watery wasteland, but manganese nodules, and other metal-rich environments on the seafloor, are brimming with fish and marine invertebrates. These critters tend to be highly specialised, geographically restricted, and not at all accustomed to disturbance. As marine biologist Craig Smith noted in a conservation planning paper published in 2013, it could take organisms living in the Clarion Clipperton Zone thousands to millions of years to recover from the impacts of mining.

The concerns raised by Smith and others prompted the ISA to carve out a vast swath of the zone—roughly 550,000 square miles—for long-term conservation. But protected waters far beyond the seafloor might feel the impacts of ocean mining, too. By kicking up sediment, nutrients, and even toxic metals, mining may reduce water quality over vast regions of open ocean, impacting pelagic fish and marine mammals.

For would-be miners, environmental concerns play into a bigger issue with deep ocean mining: the whole thing is a huge financial risk.

Even as shallow ocean mining technology takes off—Nautilus Minerals hopes to mine its first seafloor sulphide deposits in 2017—our ability to collect manganese nodules remains limited. While several companies have trial-tested nodule collectors, we don’t yet have production-scale mining systems that can haul thousands of tons of rock to the surface 15,000 feet up. “To my mind, nobody’s really answered the question of how they’re going to harvest this material,” Sansone said.

The Future of Technology Is Hiding on the Ocean Floor
Artist’s concept of a deep ocean manganese nodule mining operation, with autonomous robotic collectors, a transport system for conveying material to the surface, and a processing barge. Image: Aker Wirth

Any company hoping to pull it off will first need to invest heavily in R&D, and prospect to find the regions of seafloor where nodules are most concentrated. And depending on how strict the ISA’s environmental regulations are, companies may not see a return on investment for a long time.

Still, many experts believe a deep ocean mining industry is inevitable. “It’s a technical challenge, but we started developing this equipment when a Russian sub sank in 1974,” Wiltshire said. “It’s an environmental and investment delay rather than a fundamental technology delay.”

Johnston agrees. “From where we sit, if I had an open checkbook, we could be up and trial mining in the Clarion Clipperton Zone in a few years,” he said. “Financing it is the big issue.”

Forty years ago, the US government poured hundreds of millions into an audacious endeavour to dredge up a piece of military technology from the bottom of the ocean. Will private companies take the same plunge to bring us the metals behind the technologies we’ve grown to depend on?

The stakes are not as high as they were when two superpowers stood on the brink of nuclear war. But in the future, they could be. There are over 7 billion people on this planet, and an ever-growing number of them want access to all manner of technology. As societies transition off fossil fuels, toward cleaner energy sources and quieter vehicles, demand for rare earths and other exotic metals is only going to grow.

“At the end of the day, mining has impacts,” Johnston said. “But you have to step back and look at the bigger picture. If you don’t produce these metals from the ocean, you’re going to restrict yourself to a third of the planet. With the right management structures, we should be able to do this for the benefit of mankind and the planet in general.”

Featured image: Sam Woolley