Artificial intelligence could be a recipe for faster, less destructive mineral mining -

Artificial intelligence could be a recipe for faster, less destructive mineral mining

More, more, more metal mining is one of the biggest clean energy memes of 2023.

It’s easy to see why. The need for critical minerals fueling the economic transition away from fossil fuels is growing. Here’s a data point for that kind of astonishment: Demand for lithium—needed for the batteries that power electric cars, not to mention storage components for wind and solar farms—has tripled in the past five years, according to a report released last week from the International Energy Agency. Meanwhile, the appetite for cobalt and nickel is also growing in exponential proportions.

This has led to people panicking about the possibility of ‘reckless’ exploration and development by mining companies – particularly in indigenous areas and on the pristine deep seabed.

Just last week, Rep. Ed Case (D-Hawaii) introduced two measures to Congress that would protect American waters from deep-sea mining so that we can carefully consider the potential consequences of tampering with largely unexplored ecosystems.

The bills would also bar US companies from engaging in these activities on the high seas and require the US to uphold moratoriums in international waters so that the International Seabed Authority, which is charged with regulating those seascapes, can work together and pass some rules governing these efforts.

Spoiler: The organization has messed up some deadlines. That doesn’t concern some miners eager to get going, in the absence of any rules. Sounds like New Age piracy to me, and the damage could be devastating to an ecosystem that could host up to 10 million marine species.

“Seabed mining may take a number of destructive forms, including methods that would cut through seamounts on the ocean floor, the functional equivalent of strip mining,” Case said in announcing the legislation.

In any case, how can we satisfy the appetites of metal-hungry electric vehicle companies and wind and solar developers while protecting marine ecosystems and avoiding the kind of degradation associated with traditional mining methods?

AI to the rescue?

AI optimizing everything can be part of the recipe. In this case, AI could help humans find new sources of materials such as lithium, cobalt, copper and nickel more quickly and, in theory, with less environmental degradation than previous approaches.

That’s the message from three startups that have recently managed to close impressive venture rounds, despite the cooler climate tech funding climate. The largest infusion went to Berkeley, California-based KoBold Metals, which in late June unveiled a $195 million backing led by T. Rowe Price including Breakthrough Energy Ventures and the investment arms of mining giant BHP and conglomerate Mitsubishi.

The other two companies are early stage projects. GeologicAI in Calgary, Alberta, is also an outstanding energy investment; She revealed a $20 million first-round funding round in late June. Boston-based VerAI Discoveries announced a $12 million Series A infusion in early March. It is also considered t. Rowe Price is an investor, along with Orion Resources Partners, Chrysalix Venture Capital and Bloomberg Capital.

What does artificial intelligence have to do with it?

Every startup uses AI to tackle exploration – with the goal of helping miners find hidden mineral deposits. But they all offer a unique twist.

VerAI’s model is about analytics, about “searching data space rather than physical space,” according to CEO and co-founder Yair Frastai. “There are no longer ‘easy’ finds when it comes to mining, as the vast majority of remaining ore deposits are hidden under fast-covering terrain,” he said in a statement. “Historically, covered terrain has been a challenge to human exploration techniques, which means a wide range of opportunities are missed.”

The company uses artificial intelligence to determine where the metals are – it is focusing on lithium, cobalt, nickel, copper, zinc, gold, silver and molybdenum. After that, you find partners to pursue exploration, discovery and extraction. So far, it’s focused on potential assets in Arizona, Chile, Nevada, Ontario and Peru.

“We can bring in responsible exploration operations with a much better success rate,” Frastay said. He claims that VerAI can cut the exploration period from three to four years to two months, while cutting costs from $3 million to $5 million for $250,000.

Similarly, KoBold is primarily an analytics company that uses machine learning and scientific data to narrow down exploration possibilities. Its technology is only used for projects that have an interest. The company is actively involved in Zambia, in the Chilapomboy District, where the company recently acquired a license for the rich Mingumba deposit.

The data shows that the site has a high degree of copper – 3.64 percent, against an average of 0.39 percent under development globally. The higher the grade, the less rock that needs to be extracted in the process.

To date, Kobold is working on 50 “exploration properties” related to copper, cobalt, lithium, and nickel. The company estimates that it will take at least eight years to convert the Mingumba site into a “working mine”. But it could be a huge boon for the region: helping the country grow from producing around 850,000 metric tons annually to more than 3 million metric tons within a decade, according to a Kobold press release.

The GeologicAI approach combines artificial intelligence with “robot geologists” who use hyperspectral data, sensors, high-resolution imaging and X-rays to examine rock samples – essentially creating a digital “twin” of sedimentation using the samples. The mission is to help human geologists collect data more quickly from excavated cores at the site than is possible with manual techniques.

Breakthrough Energy’s president, Carmichael Roberts, and chair of its investment committee, said the urgent need to increase amounts of metals such as copper, nickel, cobalt and lithium has driven the company’s interest in AI for sustainable mining. “Multi-sensor basic scanning robots and AI-assisted analysis are a powerful combination, and we believe its technology will significantly accelerate key metal detection and recovery,” he said.

Which major mining companies are looking at AI as a way to move towards more sustainable extraction? Submit potential case studies, tips and ideas to explore to (email protected).

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