Feb 11, 2022 - Energy & Environment

How artificial intelligence could help fuel the electric vehicle revolution

Illustration of a mineral with a dollar sign on it.

Illustration: Megan Robinson/Axios

A startup using artificial intelligence to locate critical materials like cobalt and nickel needed for electric vehicle batteries just brought in almost $200 million.

Driving the news: KoBold Metals, based in Berkeley, California, raised $192.5 million in Series B funding led by T. Rowe Price Associates and joined by prominent investors and companies.

  • They include Canada Pension Plan, mining giant BHP, Mitsubishi and Sarah Kunst’s Cleo Capital.
  • Past backers — the Bill Gates-led Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Andreessen Horowitz and oil giant Equinor — also joined the round.
  • It's the company's largest funding round to date.

What we're watching: KoBold announced a commercial partnership with BHP last year. A spokesperson, Justin Hamilton, tells Axios it will soon announce agreements with other major mining companies.

Why it matters: Current growth of electric transport and renewable power is creating an intense quest to find and produce huge quantities of raw materials.

  • Policies that actually got the world on a path to the steep emissions cuts needed to meet the Paris Agreement goals would put this race on steroids and require even more massive investments.
  • The market for these minerals could eventually reach over $200 billion in annual revenue, per the International Energy Agency.

Threat level: KoBold argues that old ways of finding deposits are way out of step with the future demand for clean-energy minerals.

  • "Exploration success rates have been declining in recent years because the easy surface deposits have been found and because there just hasn't been a lot of investment in exploration technology," KoBold CEO Kurt House told Axios last year.

How it works: The company aims to build what backers call "Google maps" for the Earth's crust.

  • KoBold analyzes vast amounts of existing data and combines it with new surveying, sampling and drilling to find new deposits and expand existing resources.
  • "No one else in the world is doing anything like what they’re doing," said Apollo Projects' Sam Altman, another investor, in a statement on KoBold's use of AI to synthesize old and new data to predict subsurface composition.

The big picture: KoBold is among a wider set of companies and researchers aiming to bolster supplies for batteries and renewable projects that also have heavy mineral demands.

  • Some companies even plan the extraction of mineral nodules on the ocean floor that contain cobalt, nickel and other resources.

What they're saying: Seaver Wang of The Breakthrough Institute said the need for battery minerals for cars, vans and trucks will be huge even under highly optimistic scenarios for battery recycling and car use being displaced by bikes and electric buses.

  • "Given how obvious the drivers of demand for EV minerals are, it's no surprise that everyone from the mining majors to disruptive startups is reorienting to meet expected growth in demand," he said via email.
Minerals needed for electric vs. conventional cars
Data: IEA; Chart: Jacque Schrag/Axios

Between the lines: The chart above comes from an International Energy Agency report about minerals needed for climate-friendly transport and energy growth.

  • That 2021 analysis provides a sense of scale. Under nations' existing policies, mineral needs for clean energy are on track to double by 2040.
  • A strong push to keep the global temperature rise below 2°C above preindustrial levels would quadruple today's requirements by then.
  • A scenario that enables net-zero global emissions by 2050 requires a sixfold increase over the next two decades.
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