by John JervisOct 02, 2020
In a groundbreaking collaboration with The Metals Company, Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) has revealed its designs for ‘DeepGreen’ – a set of onshore and offshore production systems and facilities to manufacture battery metals from rocks on the seafloor. These systems are expected to enable a cyclical supply chain for vital battery metals while minimising environmental impact as the world strives for carbon neutrality. In a bid to reduce dependency on fossil fuels and fully electrify global economies, the world will need to manufacture innumerable batteries to cater to the rising demands. Mining from land-based sources will only exacerbate the damage to the natural ecosystem. Hence, recycling metals and responsibly mining from alternative sources may present a more sustainable path on which to move forward.
“The global energy system needs to undergo its most profound change in centuries to realise a world run exclusively on renewable sources," says Bjarke Ingels, founder and Creative Director at BIG. "If the ongoing research and studies conclude that harvesting minerals from the seabed can be done in an environmentally and socially responsible way, we will not only be able to accelerate the green transition, but give form to an entirely new industry that will create a sustainable circular metals economy for future generations,” he adds.
The Metals Company is a Canadian organisation that is presently devoted to developing low-impact batteries from polymetallic nodules - fist-sized rocks containing battery-grade nickel, cobalt, copper, and manganese. These lie unattached to the ocean floor and are formed over millions of years through the absorption of minerals from seawater. Providing an abundant supply of raw materials to make batteries, the nodules contain very few toxic heavy elements in their composition and can be processed more efficiently with minimal carbon emissions.
The collaboration reimagined metal production for the 21st century by conceptualising innovative systems for industrial machinery and processes involved in manufacturing battery metals from polymetallic ocean floor nodules. “The world is characterised by a mindset that divides it into front of house and back of house. The front of the house is carefully designed in the form of beautiful facades and lush parks, leaving the back of the house as purely utilitarian and logistical leftovers in the form of parking lots and warehouses. With The Metals Company, we are designing a human-made ecosystem channeling the flow of resources with the care and attention conventionally reserved for the front of house. A next-generation materials industry," explains Ingels.
As part of an integrated set of assets, BIG presented designs for robotic collectors, processing vessels, and zero-waste metallurgical plants. According to the firm, this system will cover the entire process of extracting nodules from the seafloor, transporting them to a custom-made production vessel, and transferring the material to a hydrodynamic shuttle carrier, which will then deposit the materials at specialised circular metallurgical plants settled within regenerative coastal landscapes. They expect that these infrastructural interventions will transform urban ports into battery material innovation centres and community hubs.
“Deep-water ports around the world are often degraded ecosystems unwelcoming to local communities. We asked BIG to reimagine what a metals-processing facility could be, to have it integrate with—even remediate—the urban coastal environment,” says Gerard Barron, Chairman and CEO of The Metals Company. “The result,” he adds, “is a breathtaking innovation complex that will transform an industrial port into a community-based hub for the electric vehicle revolution".
These processing plants will likely crop up at degraded brownfield sites in coastal zones. While designing these plants, the Copenhagen-based architects seized on the chance to combine pyrometallurgical processing and hydrometallurgical refining facilities beneath a single roof. Envisioned as innovative social campuses, it is said that the developments will turn traditional metallurgical processing on its head. At the end of their life cycles, the plants’ functions will be restructured to recycle battery cathodes.
Daniel Sundlin, partner at BIG and partner-in-charge of the joint venture with The Metals Company, explains, “To collect the nodules, we have designed a light-touch, robotic collector vehicle that aims a jet of seawater across the tops of the rocks to gently pry them from the sediment".
"Part of our design for future collectors includes a buoyant, hydrodynamic shell with an extended lip to minimise seafloor compaction and reduce and redirect the dust plume kicked up during nodule collection," he continues.
Once harvested from the seafloor, the nodules will be transported through a flexible hose at the top of the collector and lifted along a sturdy riser pipe for about four kilometres by riser bubbles to a 216 metre production vehicle at the surface. Developed as a carbon-neutral vessel powered by electrofuels, the aquatic production vehicle has a streamlined design with a sunken deck covered by photovoltaics. Vessels will function with multiple collectors at every scale, and maintenance will be provided by support vessels with the capacity to retrieve collector vehicles.
The first-generation collector vehicle from The Metals Company has already been engineered - with testing set to commence early next year on models currently being constructed in The Netherlands by Allseas. Additionally, BIG’s next-gen vessels will enable the system to further expand up to a fleet of 10 vessels and produce over 40 million tons of battery metal by 2050, which is enough to power approximately a quarter of global passenger cars. In its final, scaled-up version, the system will employ shuttle carriers to transport and deposit nodules on a conveyor belt at the processing plant.
“We are remaking how society gets, uses and ultimately re-uses the base metals, which form the foundation of the clean energy economy,” says Barron, while adding that "BIG has delivered these radical, low-impact designs to help us remake an industry. Now the exciting question is, which port will we transform first?”
In the long run, the proposal presents an exciting prospect for sustainable resource mining through the convergence of automation, whole-systems design, and deep-sea research - all being vital in conserving earth's ecosystem.
Location: CCZ, Pacific Ocean
Area: 100 sqm
Client: DeepGreen Metals Inc
Status: Idea Collaborators: The Metals Company