Japan finds over 200 million tonnes of battery metals in seabed

Nodules collector vehicle. Image courtesy of The Metals Company.)

Japanese researchers have found more than 200 million tonnes of manganese nodules rich in battery metals in the Pacific Ocean, within the country’s exclusive economic zone.

The team of experts from the University of Tokyo and the Nippon Foundation said the fist-sized nodules cover an extensive area of the seabed near Minamitorishima, a remote Tokyo Island. 

These metals-rich rocks are located at depths of about 5,500 metres and are thought to be very similar to the polymetallic nodules found in the Clarion-Clipperton zone in the Pacific, as they hold cobalt, nickel and copper in addition to manganese.

The team estimates the deposit contains 610,000 tonnes of cobalt (equivalent to 75 years of Japan’s consumption) and 740,000 tonnes of nickel (11 years), according to the Japan Times.

The Nippon Foundation and other entities expect to start large-scale extraction of nodules next year, to be delivered to Japanese companies with the capability to process them. Starting in 2026, the non-profit plans to set up a joint venture with multiple Japanese companies to develop the minerals as locally sourced materials.

The University of Tokyo will contribute to the project from an academic standpoint by conducting detailed analysis of the material extracted from the seabed.

Japan finds over 200 million tonnes of battery metals in its seabed
Polymetallic nodules collected by The Metals Company during a deep sea trial in the Pacific Ocean in November 2022. (Image: The Metals Company.)

The presence of manganese nodules in the area was first found during a survey in 2016, which involved a team from the university and other organizations.

A thorough sampling survey was carried out from late April to early June this year to calculate the deposit estimates.

BMO analyst Colin Hamilton said the depth at which the nodules are found makes mining them more complex than it sounds. “Extraction will not be simple, and we see this as a potential test case for the benefits versus disadvantages of deep sea mining of materials relating to the global fuel to materials transition,” he wrote in a brief on Tuesday. 

Hamilton noted that several key metals consumers have already stated they will not buy deep-sea-sourced materials until further studies are conducted on the potential impact of these activities.

Polymetallic nodules, also called manganese nodules, contain four essential battery metals: cobalt, nickel, copper and manganese, in a single ore. (Image courtesy of The Metals Company.)

Major global banks such Credit SuisseLloydsNatWest, and Standard Chartered, Dutch bank ABN Amro, and Spanish group Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria, have also make a point. They have all recently introduced policies that rule out funding deep-sea exploration and extraction.

Demand for nickel and cobalt is expected to surge in the coming decades. According to a White House paper, the demand for these metals is estimated to increase by 400% to 600% as battery-powered technology replaces oil and gas-powered systems.

The Metals Company (Nasdaq: TMC), one of the most advanced firms scooping up nodules from the seafloor, announced in early June that it had successfully produced the world’s first cobalt sulphate derived exclusively from seafloor polymetallic nodules.

The International Seabed Authority (ISA) is currently working on the world’s initial regulations for underwater mining, with plans to finalize the code by 2025. Despite the absence of formal rules, deep sea mining could technically start as soon as July, coinciding with the ISA’s upcoming meeting.