BEIJING (Reuters) – A Chinese deep-sea exploration vessel has returned to port in Guangdong after collecting samples of so-called cobalt-bearing crusts during a 138-day survey in the west Pacific, China’s official Xinhua news agency reported on Sunday.

Cobalt is used in batteries for electric vehicles, an important industry for China, the world’s largest auto market. Chinese companies are some of the biggest investors in cobalt mining projects in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the world’s biggest producer.

The Ocean No. 6 vessel, designed in China, conducted a survey of cobalt-bearing crusts, found on the surface of underwater mountains, in more than 30 areas, Xinhua cited Yang Shengxiong, chief engineer at the Guangzhou Marine Geological Survey, as saying.

“Samples of the crusts more than 30-cm thick were collected for the first time,” Yang said.

China has been stepping up deep-sea exploration to secure supply of “strategic” minerals, such as cobalt. Last year, state-owned China Minmetals Corp carried out a deep-sea mining survey in the east Pacific Ocean.

Cobalt crusts can contain “minor but significant” concentrations of cobalt, titanium, nickel, platinum, molybdenum, tellurium, cerium, and other metallic and rare earth elements, according to the International Seabed Authority.

The Ocean No. 6 vessel also obtained samples of microplastics, which will be analyzed to help to create basic guidelines for treatment of plastic waste in the sea, Xinhua said.

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