Italian navy gears up for Mediterranean rare earth mining bonanza

ROME — The Italian navy could soon be protecting sub-sea, rare earth mining in the Mediterranean, adding to its defense of internet cables on the sea bed, an Italian minister has predicted.

Urgently needed for making batteries, phones, lasers, satellites and microchips, rare earth minerals, as well as lithium, are in high demand in the West, which has lagged behind China’s sourcing of stocks.

The hunt for rare earths that can be mined on land is underway in Europe, but surveys show rich seams are also present under the oceans.

“We know there are rare earths below the sea floor of the Mediterranean – we can make up the gap by going under the sea,” Italian junior defense minister Matteo Perego di Cremnago told Defense News.

The Italian navy is already talking to industry to plan how it could offer security to such a strategic endeavor, he added.

“The navy could contribute divers, submarines, minesweepers … and unmanned technology will be important,” he said.

“Drones that will have the ability to recharge autonomously with solar energy by coming to surface will be able to monitor infrastructure and sub-sea mining,” the minister added.

Lithium, which is essential in car batteries and key to the world’s shift away from gas-fueled vehicles, is mainly mined in Australia, China and South America.

As Europe predicts it will need 35 times more lithium by 2050, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen has said the white powder “will soon be even more important than oil and gas.”

Environmental groups have claimed sub-sea mining will damage natural habitats on the sea bed and urged a moratorium.

The need to safeguard strategic undersea infrastructure has become more urgent since the Nord Stream gas pipeline attack in the Baltic Sea last year.

In the wake of the attack the Italian navy committed to use its submarines to monitor and deter sabotage of undersea internet cables in the Mediterranean as part of a deal with Italy’s biggest private cable provider.

This year, Italy took the lead on a new project in the EU’s Permanent Structured Cooperation, or PESCO, scheme which will seek to beef up sub-sea security for energy pipelines and internet cables criss-crossing the world on the seabed.

Italian naval officials have suggested that in the near future, undersea naval drones patrolling pipelines and cables will be able to stop off at charging stations on the seabed to top up their battery and drop off data, letting them stay submerged for months.

Perego di Cremnago said future roles for the navy in protecting sub-sea infrastructure would be worked on at a new undersea technology centre due to open at La Spezia in Italy next year, which will bring together companies, universities, research centers and the navy.

“This will put us in the forefront. It will put everything together,” he said.

Tom Kington is the Italy correspondent for Defense News.

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