The Ecological Gamble with Deep-Sea Mining

Picture Credit: AErchie | Diagram of Deep-Sea Mining | 2011 | The Curmudgeon’s Magazine

Thanks to our insatiable demand for Earth’s natural resources, science never fails to find new ways to take advantage of what the planet offers. From the sunlight to the bedrock, companies have been succeeding in extracting energy and materials from the Earth in the most creative and often destructive ways. This time, the Australian-Canadian company Nauti­lus Minerals Inc. claims that the next area of focus should be the bottom of the ocean.

The deep sea remains humankind’s last ex­plored frontier on Earth, given how we know more about the surface of Mars than the bot­tom of the ocean. Hidden in the depths of the dark sea floor is an abundance of priceless metals more valuable than any treasure one may read about in a pirate book.

The ocean not only contains huge nodules of manganese, nickel, and copper, but it also has rich deposits of high-grade zinc, gold, and silver beneath its hydrothermal vents and min­eral layers made out of cobalt and platinum.

With such an immense collection of rich­es right in front of us, it’s no surprise that companies are racing to claim rights to these seafloor territories. The first to do so is Nau­tilus Minerals, a pioneer in what experts are calling “deep-sea mining.” Using its new and revolutionary underwater mining machines, the company plans on cutting up parts of the seafloor and using a collection machine to send them up to a ship on the ocean surface.

There, the sediments are filtered to separate the precious minerals from seawater and other substances. Based on existing technology used to dig trenches for oil and gas pipelines, these 50-foot-long mining machines are remote-con­trolled, which allows the company to extract the ores without sending workers more than a mile below the ocean surface.

Unsurprisingly, the efforts of Nautilus Min­erals have caught the attention of several en­vironmental groups who denounced deep-sea mining as destructive to the entire marine eco­system. While it’s true that deep-sea mining may lead to massive habitat destruction and species extinction, the greatest concern is the fact that no one knows exactly what will happen as a consequence of extracting energy and minerals from deep in the ocean.

“The truth is that we don’t know what the true environmental impacts of deep seabed mining are as yet. We know little about the ecology of the deep sea and the resilience of the system, and the effectiveness of the pro­posed efforts to assist natural recovery are unknown,” stated GreenPeace Oceans Cam­paigner Richard Page.

The ocean is more than just an expansive body of water. It not only serves as one of the largest sinks for greenhouse gases on Earth, but it also holds some of the largest reservoirs of methane gas beneath the seafloor. If something went wrong with the carbon dioxide absorption or if the trapped methane escaped into the atmosphere, the effects of cli­mate change would rapidly worsen and cause unimaginable harm to the planet’s atmosphere.

The bottom line is that Nautilus Minerals’ efforts to extract precious metals from the ocean floor will no doubt damage the eco­system, but the scope of that damage remains frightfully unknown. Given the unique nature of the ocean floor, anything can happen in only a short amount of time.

Although deep-sea mining could potentially have a significant effect on the environment, Nautilus Minerals argues that the overall im­pact of deep-sea mining will not be as severe as that of a terrestrial mine. According to Chief Financial Officer Shontel Norgate, there won’t be issues involving community displacement, the use of freshwater supplies, erosion or loss of land. Not only is the procedure itself minimally disrup­tive, but the minerals that this project will collect, especially copper, are crucial for green energy technology like wind and solar energy and electric cars.

“If we’re saying no to fossil fuels, we’re ef­fectively saying yes to more copper. Where is that copper coming from?” asked Norgate.

In addition, Nautilus Minerals stated that it wanted to pave a responsible path towards deep-sea mining by setting an example for oth­er companies. The company asks for the global community and all the skeptics to give them a chance to prove themselves.

“I certainly believe that if we get this right…it does have the potential to start a new in­dustry and change the way we’ve been mining copper for decades. We have a clean piece of paper here to decide how we want to do this, how we want this industry to be,” stated Nor­gate in an interview on July 2015.

As well-intentioned as Nautilus Minerals might be, deep-sea mining just leaves open too many risks for unforeseen consequences. After obtaining permission from the country’s government in 2014, the company expects to begin their mining project off the coast of Pap­ua New Guinea in 2018. If the project is successful, the company may collect at least 80,000 tons of copper and 150,000 ounces of gold per year.

In our market-driven world, the success of Nautilus Minerals will only provide an incen­tive for numerous other companies to do the same. Nautilus Minerals may be the first to ex­periment with deep-sea mining, but it certain­ly won’t be the last. After all, with the ocean floor rich with precious minerals, it’s only natural for people to want to take advantage of them before anyone else does first.

Already, other corporations, such as Lock­heed Martin, are making plans to commercially explore the seafloor. So far, the International Seabed Authority, the United Nations body regulating this growing indus­try, has issued a total of 19 licenses to differ­ent organizations. While the benefits of deep-sea mining may outweigh the costs momentarily, those costs will grow exponentially as more and more firms join the bandwagon.

As the industry grows, the possibility of things going wrong, like a disastrous chemi­cal spill, will rapidly increase as well. Eventu­ally, it will be an entire swarm of underwater mining machines drilling into the ocean floor, which will ravage the planet at an astronomi­cal scale. Even Nautilus Minerals itself plans on expanding to other areas if the project is successful. What is to stop others from doing the same?

Deep-sea mining presents itself as a glitter­ing, attractive new way to squeeze more nat­ural resources from the environment. But, as with similar past endeavors, once the industry gathers enough momentum, it becomes almost impossible to stop and leaves behind a trail of destruction in its wake.

Originally published on April 21, 2016, in The Miscellany NewsDeep sea mining potentially detrimental to environment

A Bright, Eco-Friendly Future: Bioluminescence as Our Next Light Source

Picture Credit: Lit by Bioluminescence | Glowee

Imagine a world where the streets glow with a dreamlike shade of blue as if you’re walking in the presence of ethereal spirits wandering the city. While that image sounds too mythical to be real, one start-up company is working to create this otherworldly environment for the future. Glowee, a French company planning on harnessing the power of bioluminescent bacteria, has officially debuted after successfully crowd-funding in May 2015. Their goal: to replace the electric street lamps of France with blue microbial lamps.

Bioluminescence is an organism’s ability to generate light in the dark. This is different from fluorescence, which involves absorbing light from an external source and immediately re-emitting a modified version of that light. While fluorescence is a physical process, bioluminescence is a chemical one that occurs due to an enzyme, luciferase. In the biochemical reaction, luciferase catalyzes the light-emitting pigment luciferin with oxygen in order to create light. For humans, bioluminescence has the potential to be­come a valuable source of renewable energy.

Consider the latest global push towards reduc­ing CO2 emissions and fighting climate change. At the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference, world leaders came to an agreement that everyone must do everything they can to cut down our energy consumption. While politicians can promise to limit emissions, real progress cannot occur with­out a viable green energy solution. Rather than an immediate transition to green energy, what if we tackled the problem one chunk at a time? This is where inspirations from nature and the creativity of science mesh together. For instance, biolumi­nescence doesn’t require any electricity to pro­duce light. Given this fact, researchers are investi­gating engineered bioluminescence as a possible alternative to regular street lighting.

Replacing electric lamps with bioluminescent ones may seem almost trivial in the face of cut­ting global energy consumption, but reducing the number of public street lamps is a very necessary first step. In truth, lighting up the streets every night is an incredibly expensive task. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the U.S. spent a total of $11 billion on outdoor lighting in 2012, 30 percent of which went to waste in areas that didn’t use or need that light. Furthermore, a recent research study determined that there are currently about 300 million total streetlights around the world and that num­ber will grow to 340 million by 2025. With such severe drawbacks that come with electrical lighting, the use of bioluminescent light is a way to alleviate some if not most of that cost.

Today, the race to find the best form of engi­neered bioluminescence continues to bring us various creative inventions and solutions. At Syr­acuse University, a small team of scientists led by Rabeka Alam discovered a way to chemically at­tach genetically-altered luciferase enzymes from fireflies directly onto the surface of nanorods to make them glow. In a process they called Bioluminescence Resonance Energy Transfer (BRET), the nanorod produces a bright light whenever the luciferase enzyme interacts with the fuel source and can produce different colors depending on the size of the rod. According to one scientist on the team, “It’s conceivable that someday firefly-coated nanorods could be in­serted into LED-type lights that you don’t have to plug in.”

On the other side of the world, Dutch designer Daan Roosegaarde has been working to­gether with the tech company Bioglow to create bioluminescent trees to light up the streets. Incorporating important re­search from the University of Cambridge, Roose­gaarde and his team spliced DNA containing the light-emitting properties from bioluminescent organisms into the chloroplasts of plants. As a re­sult, those plants can produce both luciferase and luciferin that allows them to glow at night.

For Glowee, the plan is to harness biolumines­cence by using Aliivibrio fischeri, a species of bioluminescent bacteria found in certain marine animals like the Hawaiian bobtail squid. They first produce a gel containing the bioluminescent bac­teria along with various nutrients that keep the bacteria alive. Then, the gel is used to fill small, transparent containers, allowing the light to glow through. This method not only makes the light source wireless but also customizable depending on its purpose and design. These bioluminescent lamps would certainly appeal to shop owners in France, especially since the French government recently passed a law that forces all businesses to turn off their lights at 1 a.m. to fight light pollution.

Unfortunately, despite countless efforts towards perfecting engineered bioluminescence, it may still be a long while before our streets are lit by genetically-altered plants or bacteria. The two main obstacles in this endeavor are the rel­atively dim nature of the lights as well as their short lifespan. Even with Glowee’s bio-lights, the company’s current prototype can only produce light up to three days. Some argue that the cost and production of these bioluminescent products greatly overshadow their benefits, saying that such eco-friendly alternatives can never catch up to electrical lighting. While there may be lim­itations, all these projects by businesses and in­stitutions signify the public’s growing desire for real change.

A lot of these projects were funded not by the government but by Kickstarter and other funding platforms. Perhaps many of the backers were just mesmerized by the aesthetic appeal, but the public nevertheless recognizes the potential behind engineered bioluminescence. With continuous effort and scientific innovation, a town or a neighbor­hood powered by living organisms instead of electricity can be a reality. By following the ghost­ly blue light ahead, we would take a tremendous first step towards a world where humans and na­ture can truly coexist.

Originally published on March 30, 2016, in The Miscellany News: Scientists note perks of bioluminescence