Prospective life cycle assessment of metal commodities obtained from deep-sea polymetallic nodules


  • A Life Cycle Assessment of commodities from polymetallic nodules was performed.
  • Climate change, photochemical oxidant formation and acidification were considered.
  • The main hotspots are at onshore processes (e.g., hydrometallurgical processing).
  • 38% reduction in carbon footprint can be observed, when comparing to terrestrial.
  • Deep-sea operations may contribute significantly to the growing demand of metals.


Sustainable metal supply will be essential to achieve climate and sustainability goals (e.g., Paris agreement), for instance by providing the necessary raw materials for renewable energy infrastructure systems. The potential exploitation of mineral resources from the deep sea (e.g., polymetallic nodules) can play a major role in this supply. A holistic environmental analysis is needed, in order to consider the entire value chain of the products obtained out of deep-sea exploitation. Therefore, the objective of this study was to perform a prospective life cycle assessment (LCA) of deep-sea-sourced commodities and compare it to equivalent products obtained from terrestrial mining. It considered as reference flow one tonne of (dry) nodules, using a cradle-to-gate approach up to the final metal commodities, analyzing the delivery to the market of 10.5 kg of copper, 12.8 kg of nickel, 2.3 kg of cobalt and 311.3 kg of ferromanganese. Three environmental impact categories were analyzed, i.e., climate change, acidification and photochemical oxidant formation. Overall, onshore activities (e.g., hydrometallurgical processing) are the main hotspots for environmental impacts of metals sourced from the deep sea; offshore activities play a minor role in the value chain. While photochemical oxidant formation impacts would be similar to terrestrial alternatives, the deep-sea-sourced commodities can bring environmental gains in the order of 38% for climate change and up to 72% for acidification. As this study shows, a strategic selection of the location for onshore processing of the polymetallic nodules is key to target cleaner production, not only because of the distance from the nodules site, but especially because of the available energy mix. The results should be interpreted with care, though, due to intrinsic limitations of the LCA study, e.g., the prospective nature of this study, the limited access to terrestrial mining data, amongst others. Nonetheless, regardless the limitations a prospective LCA imposes, this study highlights some important potential benefits that commodities from deep-sea polymetallic nodules can bring to society with respect to three important environmental impacts.

Alvarenga R. A. F., Preat N., Duhayon C. & Dewulf J., 2021. Prospective life cycle assessment of metal commodities obtained from deep-sea polymetallic nodules. Journal of Cleaner Production: 129884. doi: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2021.129884. Article (subscription required).

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