Robot designed to harvest EV metals from the ocean.

  • 10.12.2022
  • Fast Company

On a recent weekday afternoon, a team of engineers watched as a small robot hovered in the clear water of Canada’s Georgian Bay, gently picking up rocks off the sandy bottom. Impossible Metals, the startup that designed the robot, wants to prove that it can sustainably harvest deep-sea metals like the cobalt and nickel needed for electric vehicle batteries. The test in shallow water was its first proof of concept. Still, scientists question whether it’s possible for any deep-sea mining to avoid harming the environment.

Deep-sea mining is on the verge of becoming a reality: Some companies could begin operating as soon as next year, extracting minerals that have naturally collected thousands of feet underwater. Marine biologists say it could be an environmental disaster. Most companies plan to use huge machines to dredge the ocean floor or drill into underwater mountains, disrupting unique ecosystems.

Instead of dredging up these nodules, Impossible Metals plans to use its robotic vehicles to pick them up, creating as little disturbance as possible. The robots will use artificial intelligence to identify any marine life resting on the rocks, and avoid picking those up; the company says it’s also working with scientists to plan how many of the nodules to leave in place as habitat.

“Because we have that selective harvest ability, we can leave habitat corridors and different densities behind in order to ensure that we don’t have a loss of biodiversity,” says Jason Gillham, the startup’s chief technology officer and one of its founders.