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Japan hits jackpot and finds decades' worth of EV battery metal off remote island

Researchers have discovered around 230 million metric tons of minerals on the seabed off a remote island in Japan's economic zone.

Japan hits jackpot and finds decades' worth of EV battery metal off remote island
Representative Cover Image Source: Pexels | Kindel Media

As the world struggles to find precious metals for EV batteries, Japan has made a significant discovery. Researchers found around 230 million metric tons of minerals on the seabed off a remote island within Japan's exclusive economic zone, reported Nikkei Asia. These minerals are estimated to meet 75 years of Japan's cobalt consumption and around 11 years' worth of nickel.

Representative Image Source: Pexels | Tom Fisk
Representative Image Source: Pexels | Tom Fisk

The Nippon Foundation and the University of Tokyo discovered these deposits of 230 million tons of manganese nodules around Minami-Torishma, located 1900 km southeast of Tokyo. Between April and June, they conducted surveys using mining equipment and remotely controlled underwater vehicles to explore around 100 spots on the seabed, 5,200 to 5,700 meters deep. Yasuhiro Kato, who was part of a team that found nodules in the area in 2016, said, "The nodules are highly concentrated and offer quite good materials. We will aim to develop this resource to boost industry."

Representative Image Source: Pexels | Mike Bird
Representative Image Source: Pexels | Mike Bird

These nodules consist of iron and manganese oxides, containing about 20% manganese and 1% cobalt and nickel. All three elements are crucial for making batteries, including those for electric vehicles. Researchers estimate there are 610,000 tons of cobalt and 740,000 tons of nickel spread over 10,000 square meters. The research team plans to start trial extraction in 2025, aiming to provide thousands of tons of manganese nodules daily to metal refineries in Japan. Additionally, the Nippon Foundation intends to form a private-sector consortium, targeting commercialization by 2026.

Representative Image Source: Pexels | Paul Seling
Representative Image Source: Pexels | Paul Seling

The areas around Minami-Torishma where these minerals were found, are known for containing mud layers with rare-earth elements and crusts that have cobalt and nickel. However, costs and technical needs make deep-sea mining and refining a big problem. Despite being an automotive powerhouse, Japan is behind many countries when it comes to building electric vehicles, reported Business Insider. About 2.2% of new passenger cars sold in Japan are electric whereas countries like China have sold about 25% electric cars. This recent discovery will hopefully change this for the country very soon. 

In another development, a team of researchers from the University of Queensland devised a method to convert tailings, a mining waste material, into healthy soil. According to Canadian Light Source, there are over 1,800 tailing storage facilities worldwide, and the rapid production of waste means more will be needed. Additionally, a tailing dam collapse in 2019 resulted in about 300 deaths from the harmful waste.

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Longbin Huang, a professor at the University of Queensland said, "We have basically taken engineering solutions into the context of natural soil formation from rocks because tailing has some useful minerals common to natural rocks." As tailings have no biologically friendly properties for growing plants, the researchers discovered a solution to speed up the process of tailings becoming natural soil.

This is done by fostering certain microbes to develop in tailings, where they consume the organics and minerals present. He explained, "You have microbially active surfaces in soil crumbs that develop a porosity in compacted tailings that allows the gas, water, roots, and microbes to survive, just like in arable soil. Therefore, the dead mineral matrix of tailings becomes a soil-like media that will enable plants to grow."

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