“These geologist Wilson Bonner assures me as the four-wheeled all-terrain vehicle he drives suddenly tilts sideways, throwing me into the churning mud under our wheels. On a cold fall day, we’re climbing the side of a densely forested hill in rural Ontario, Canada, and we’re headed to a point that Bonner’s employer, startup KoBold Metals, says. oldest industries
Indeed, we complete the half-hour hike relatively mud-free, eventually crossing a ring of broken trees and crushed bushes, turning it into a bulldozer-smashed mud. A black pipe about as wide as my arm sticks out of the ground – the top end of a hole about a mile deep drilled into the ground by a truck-sized drill rig lying idle nearby. There’s not much to look at, but this gap could be a step into the future of mining, a sector crucial to the world’s transition to renewable energy.
As the world begins to shift unevenly from fossil fuels to greener alternatives, there is an intensifying global struggle to find the vast quantities of cobalt, lithium and other metals needed to make all the electric car batteries, solar panels and wind turbines we’re going to. However, it has always been difficult and expensive to find new mineral deposits and is increasing day by day. Many of the world’s easily discovered reserves are already in use. Those left behind tend to be in remote places and deep underground. Miners often say that only 1 out of 100 exploratory drills reveals something.
KoBold Metals, a four-year-old startup, is among a handful of companies trying to make the process faster, cheaper and more efficient by applying artificial intelligence. KoBold has built a massive database containing all the information it can find on the Earth’s crust—30 million pages of geological reports, soil samples, satellite imagery, academic research papers, and the equivalent of centuries-old handwritten field reports. A team of data scientists turns all this disparate information into something machine-readable, for example by scanning written reports with optical character reading software or standardizing geophysical information saved in different digital formats.
All of this runs through machine learning algorithms that identify patterns in the geology and other properties of where metals have been found in the past. The algorithms can then be released across the entire database to find promising locations with similar undiscovered patterns, producing a series of maps showing where target metals can be found.
Backed by investors such as venture firm Andreessen Horowitz and Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures, KoBold’s initial exploration teams landed last summer searching sites in Zambia, Greenland and Canada (including the Ontario facility near Crystal Lake).
KoBold is looking for copper, cobalt, nickel, lithium and rare earths, which are key components of electric car batteries and other renewable energy technologies. The International Energy Agency estimates that demand for all these metals could quadruple by 2050, and demand for some metals such as cobalt and nickel could increase by up to 40 times. Altogether, the agency estimates that the mass market for minerals essential for “clean energy technologies,” from renewable energy sources to batteries and power grids, will more than fivefold to reach $400 billion by 2050.