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Electric cars are powered by rare metals. Can AI help find them?

The date of: 2021-12-06
viewed: 11

Early one morning, as light danced through the forest canopy above, Fedrick Eshiloni reached into the ground and scooped up fists of ochre-colored earth.
The scenery hardly resembled a hub of innovation: In this wooded stretch of Zambia’s northwest, home to reedy swamps and termite mounds the size of houses, locals still move goods by oxcart. But the 22-year-old, dressed in a blue workman’s uniform and accompanied by a team of prospectors, was performing a critical first step in an emerging high-tech quest to find the metals key to powering a clean energy future.
After a day collecting bags of soil, Eshiloni and his colleagues would haul their samples to a makeshift camp, where they are dried, sieved, and tested for traces of 34 chemical elements. Even tiny amounts offer clues whether ores containing copper and cobalt, both critical to the production of electric vehicles, lie below.
(The electric travel revolution has arrived. Read about it here.)
These first steps aren’t so different from the way mining companies have explored since the mid 20th century. But what happens next amounts to a high-stakes test of new data-driven techniques that some believe could radically transform mining—and help limit global warming in the process.
Unlike conventional prospectors, this team from KoBold Metals, a Bill Gates-backed California start-up, is using the data that they assemble—from soil samples to airborne surveys to reams of historical documents—as building blocks for a suite of complex geological models that are powered by artificial intelligence. KoBold and its backers are betting that AI will more effectively predict where ores have formed, and ultimately unlock new, deeper deposits.
KoBold isn’t the only mining company that’s embracing big data to aid the next generation of discoveries. But its high-profile financiers and focus on the metals needed for the green energy revolution are drawing attention to an emerging raw materials bottleneck that risks thwarting global efforts, including deals negotiated at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Scotland, to build a less carbon-intensive world.
According to the International Energy Agency, keeping global warming “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), the central goal of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, will require unprecedented growth in the production of commodities like copper, cobalt, nickel, and lithium. All are essential building blocks for solar panels, wind turbines, power lines and, above all, battery-powered electric vehicles, which are less carbon intensive than their gas-fueled counterparts, especially where electricity is generated from renewables.
By 2040, the IEA projects that meeting Paris targets will require annual global sales of more than 70 million electric cars and trucks, which together will demand as much as 30 times the quantity of metals that’s used in their production now.
Shifting to a green future is not without contradictory complications—at least for the immediate future. Although new technologies and tighter regulations have made mining less environmentally destructive, the extraction and processing of metals still contaminates water and soil, encroaches on habitats, and emits pollutants and the same greenhouse gases that have caused a warming climate to begin with.
Emissions linked to the minerals used in green energy technologies, however, are a small fraction of those generated by the fossil fuel-powered systems they’re designed to replace. Over time, as the adoption of electric vehicles accelerates, more battery recycling could make the search for new battery metals less imperative. Some of the green transportation burden could be shouldered by other solutions still in development—such as cars fueled by hydrogen—or technologies not yet imagined.
For now, though, analysts stress there’s no substitute for digging rocks out of the Earth.
Keeping warming to below 2 degrees Celsius using existing technologies will require “massive additional volumes of metals,” says Julian Kettle, senior vice president of mining and metals at Wood Mackenzie, a global energy consultancy. “There’s simply no way around that.”
Rocks under the hood
Founded in 2018, KoBold derives its name from cobalt, a lustrous bluish-silver metal that helps drive performance of the lithium-ion batteries that revolutionized consumer electronics when they were introduced in the early 1990s. The same batteries are used on a much larger scale to power electric vehicles, and cobalt gives them greater range, longer lifespans, and better protection against fires by reducing corrosion.
Its supply, though, is especially precarious: Nearly 70 percent is sourced from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where a history of labor abuses and corruption have heightened the urgency to find deposits elsewhere. Automakers are also seeking cobalt alternatives—the metal, after all, is an expensive commodity—though the performance limitations of today’s cobalt-free batteries makes cobalt demand likely to accelerate.  
Other metals KoBold seeks to unearth could soon feel a supply crunch as well. Gerbrand Ceder, a materials scientist who researches batteries at the University of California, Berkeley, believes nickel faces the greatest risk of long-term shortages, in part because it’s the most viable cobalt substitute.
Analysts also foresee a scarcity of copper, which is used in a range of green technologies, including electric vehicle motors, wiring, and charging infrastructure. A typical battery powered automobile uses three times as much copper as its gas-guzzling cousins.
These supply constraints have emerged, in part, because discovering viable metal deposits has become harder. That’s largely because the most accessible ones have been extracted: In Zambia, Africa’s second largest producer of copper, the ores mined today were either “sticking out of the ground” or just below the surface when they were found, according to David Broughton, a geologist with 25 years’ experience in the region who advises KoBold and others.

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