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Column 13th May 2020

Electric vehicles or saving the ocean

Which should we be focusing on – increasing the replacement of petrol and diesel with electric vehicles or protecting the oceans of the world?

It seems that we can’t do both.

Electric vehicles require lithium-ion rechargeable batteries and these contain cobalt.

Unfortunately this is a very scarce resource and to meet the electric car target for the UK alone would require twice the current world output of cobalt.

Over the last 50 years there has been a frantic search for other sources of this valuable metal and the main source found is at the bottom of the ocean.

The deep ocean also contains large quantities of important metals like copper, titanium, and manganese (which play a key role in many green technologies, including wind turbines, solar panels, and electric storage batteries) as well as platinum, silver and gold.

Yet only five per cent of the ocean floor has been explored and in that small percentage, Mat Upton (Professor in Medical Microbiology at Plymouth University) and his team in the Antibiotic Resistant Pathogens Research Group discovered a microbe from a deep-sea sponge which could be a breakthrough in the fight against antibiotic resistant superbugs.

He and other scientists who view the deep ocean and the number of unique and undocumented species as a prospecting ground for new medicines, fear such potential will be lost in the rush to exploit the deep sea’s rich metal and mineral resources.

The United Nations (UN) has granted at least 30 licences to private companies to carry out exploration on the seabed and at least one company wants to start mining by the end of this decade.

The problem with deep ocean mining is that it is likely to be indiscriminate and will simply scrape the seabed, sucking the rocks and sediment in and extracting the minerals required, dumping the remainder back in the sea and smothering any sea life not already destroyed by the scraping.

Yet we don’t know what we are giving up. Millions of unknown organisms could become extinct before we even know they exist.

The 2020 UN Ocean Conference (planned for early June in Lisbon) might have discussed these issues but because of Covid-19 it has been postponed.

Will this mean the postponement of the destruction of the ocean floor? I doubt it.

Perhaps we should be focusing on hydrogen fuelled vehicles which store energy in the form of compressed hydrogen fuel rather than in a battery.


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