How cobalt-rich crusts form


Formation of Cobalt-Rich Crusts in the Subsea Environment


Cobalt-rich crusts (CRCs) are hard, iron-manganese deposits found on the surface of underwater mountains called seamounts. Beyond their scientific interest, they are gaining attention for their potential as a source of metals vital for emerging technologies (Hein et al., 2013)[1].

Geological Settings and Distribution

Seamounts and CRCs

CRCs predominantly form on seamounts, which are underwater mountains rising over 1,000 meters from the sea floor. They can be isolated or part of a seamount chain. The Pacific Ocean, particularly the northwest and central parts, has the highest concentration of CRCs (Halbach et al., 1988)[2].

Environmental Conditions for CRC Formation

Optimal conditions for CRC growth are in water depths between 800 to 2,500 meters where bottom currents are relatively high, ensuring a consistent supply of elements needed for their formation (Hein et al., 2013)[1].

Formation Processes

Precipitation from Seawater

The most common and accepted theory is that CRCs form from direct precipitation from seawater. Metals are transported and concentrated by deep ocean currents, and over time, layers build up as metals precipitate onto the rock surfaces (Cronan, 1980)[3].

Hydrothermal Contribution

Hydrothermal vents, where superheated water rich in minerals emerges from the sea floor, can contribute to the deposition of some elements in CRCs. While not the primary source, they play a role in some regions (Usui & Someya, 1997)[4].

Biogenic Input

Certain microorganisms in the deep sea can absorb and concentrate metals from seawater. Over time, the death and decay of these organisms can contribute to the formation of CRCs (Wang et al., 2018)[5].

Composition of CRCs

Major Elements

CRCs are primarily made up of iron and manganese oxides. Cobalt, though a significant component, is not the primary element, averaging 1% of the crust’s total weight (Hein et al., 2000)[6].

Trace Metals and Rare Earth Elements

Beyond cobalt, CRCs contain other valuable metals like nickel, platinum, tellurium, and rare earth elements. The concentration of these elements can vary based on location and depth (Koschinsky et al., 2014)[7].

Economic Implications and Exploration

CRCs as a Resource

The potential of CRCs to provide critical metals, especially cobalt for battery technology, has led to increased exploration and potential commercial exploitation (Hein, 2010)[8].

Exploration Challenges

Exploration of CRCs is expensive and technologically challenging due to the deep-sea environment. There are also environmental and regulatory challenges associated with deep-sea mining (Halfar & Fujita, 2007)[9].

Environmental Concerns and Regulations

Mining CRCs poses potential environmental risks, such as habitat destruction and sediment plumes affecting marine life. International regulations, mainly under the International Seabed Authority (ISA), aim to ensure sustainable exploitation (Levin et al., 2016)[10].


Cobalt-rich crusts represent a potentially significant resource of various metals crucial for emerging technologies. Understanding their formation, distribution, and economic potential is vital for both scientific and commercial endeavors. Balancing the economic benefits with environmental concerns is paramount for the sustainable extraction of these resources.


  1. Hein, J.R., et al. (2013). Cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts: global distribution, composition, origin and research activities. Island Arc, 22(4), 301-308.
  2. Halbach, P., et al. (1988). Probable modern analogue of Kuroko‐type massive sulphide deposits in the Okinawa Trough back‐arc basin. Nature, 338(6215), 496-499.
  3. Cronan, D.S. (1980). Underwater minerals: Academic Press.
  4. Usui, A., & Someya, M. (1997). Distribution and composition of marine hydrogenetic and hydrothermal manganese deposits in the northwest Pacific. Island Arc, 6(1), 14-27.
  5. Wang, H., et al. (2018). Potential deep-sea mining of seafloor massive sulfides: A case study in Papua New Guinea. Deep Sea Research Part II: Topical Studies in Oceanography, 155, 104-115.
  6. Hein, J.R., et al. (2000). Cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts in the Pacific. Handbook of Marine Mineral Deposits, 239-279.
  7. Koschinsky, A., et al. (2014). Seafloor hydrothermal systems and the delivery of metals to the oceans. Seafloor Hydrothermal Systems, 1-18.
  8. Hein, J.R. (2010). Cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts and the future of deep sea mining. Marine Georesources & Geotechnology, 28(3), 185-198.
  9. Halfar, J., & Fujita, R. (2007). Danger of deep-sea mining. Science, 316(5827), 987.
  10. Levin, L.A., et al. (2016). Challenges to the sustainability of deep-seabed mining. Nature Sustainability, 1(8), 493-497.

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Phillip Gales is a serial entrepreneur who has built tech companies in various heavy industries including Oil & Gas, Construction, Real Estate and Supply Chain Logistics. Originally from the UK, he now lives in Toronto, Canada, with his wife and young family.

Phillip holds an MBA from Harvard Business School, and an MEng in Electrical Engineering from the University of Cambridge, specialising in Machine Intelligence.