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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A startup is using artificial intelligence to find new sources of metals that power electric vehicles and renewable energy technologies.

Why it matters: The world desperately needs new supplies of lithium, cobalt and other metals to accelerate the shift to EVs and renewable energy, and machine learning can help narrow the search.

Driving the news: This morning, the Silicon Valley-based startup KoBold Metals — which is backed by Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, among others — announced a partnership with the world's largest mining company, BHP Group, to use its technology to locate battery metal deposits.

  • The partnership will focus on a more than 193,000-square-mile area of Western Australia, a region KoBold CEO Kurt House notes is "bigger than California."
  • The search will focus on copper and nickel deposits believed buried 650 feet to 5,000 feet below the surface.

The big picture: "We need roughly $10 trillion worth of new discoveries of lithium, nickel, cobalt, copper and rare earth minerals just to be able to fully electrify the world's passenger vehicle fleet," says House.

  • "But 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," he adds.

How it works: Conventional mining exploration involves collecting physical deposits from field sites and analyzing them, but that takes time, with plenty of false starts. By one assessment, only 1 in 100 sites will have a deposit that can be profitably mined, and that proportion has been dropping in recent years.

  • KoBold argues it can boost discovery rates 20-fold by tapping 160 years' worth of scattered geological data, as well as new data taken from fresh surface readings, and using machine learning approaches to analyze it and indicate where mineable deposits are likely to be found underground.
  • "This is fundamentally an information problem with a search problem that's perfectly set up for the kind of advanced scientific computing that has had minimal investment up to this point," says House.

Between the lines: BHP's partnership with KoBold is part of the mining giant's effort to build out its portfolio of what it calls the "future-facing commodities" that will run the renewable-energy economy.

  • Anglo-Australian mining company Rio Tinto has increasingly tapped artificial intelligence as part of its exploration process in recent years, including one major copper find in Western Australia.
  • Such efforts need to speed up. A May report by the International Energy Agency found that deploying enough clean technologies to prevent 2°C of warming would increase demand for energy-storage minerals more than 30-fold by 2040.

The catch: Mining with AI is still mining, with all the political risks, human rights issues and environmental destruction that digging metals out of the ground can entail.

  • Aboriginal groups recently rejected a bill intended to protect cultural heritage in mining areas in Western Australia, arguing they should have the final say over protection of their sacred sites.
  • For its part, KoBold — which does exploration work itself, rather than simply selling its software to the highest bidder — has said it will only work in areas where it can get community buy-in.

Be smart: KoBold shows how technology plays an underappreciated role in just how large our supplies of vital natural resources really are.

  • As market demand for minerals like lithium or cobalt rises, so does the willingness of mining companies to invest in finding more, as new technology can make previously unprofitable or unknown deposits profitably accessible.

The bottom line: We do need lots of lithium and cobalt to save us, and House is convinced "we'll have enough to electrify the economy."

  • "I just don't know if we'll have enough to do it in time, which is why we're running as fast as we can."

Go deeper

Updated Dec 7, 2021 - Axios Events

Watch: A conversation on infrastructure and sustainability

On Tuesday, December 7th, Axios co-founder Mike Allen and energy reporter Ben Geman looked at the latest infrastructure bill’s sweeping sustainability provisions and the plans to implement them, featuring Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) and United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby.

Sec. Jennifer Granholm highlighted the path forward for clean energy offshore wind and weatherization, how the Biden administration is prioritizing emerging green technologies, and how the bill can make America’s supply chains more competitive.

  • On the vast potential of geothermal energy as a clean energy resource: “We should be using a lot more of it. It is renewable, it’s underneath our feet. We frac right now for natural gas, for oil. We could be using that same technology to pull up clean resources from under our feet. We have enough geothermal to power this nation several times over if we actually got at it, so that to me is exciting and I’m really enthusiastic about that.”
  • On how the infrastructure bill makes America more competitive: “It invests in supply chains. Right now, we are not competitive...we haven’t really gotten to the level of building out the full supply chain: the cell that goes into the battery pack, the anode, the cathode, the separator material. We want to do the whole thing, including the critical minerals that are built into those battery packs. Making us competitive would mean that we partner with industry to make those costs competitive here.”

Sen. John Hickenlooper described how the infrastructure bill’s funding invests in states’ climate resiliency efforts, how to make sure the bill’s investments and projects are implemented over time, and the long-term impact of the bill’s passage on the transition to clean energy.

  • On the scope of the infrastructure bill’s clean energy provisions: “People already forget that this is the most consequential climate bill ever. And when you look at $73 billion for power and the grind and including and that is, you know, all kinds of recharging stations, incentives for electric vehicles, that’s very impactful.”
  • On the long-term impact of infrastructure bill investments: “I think it’s worth re-emphasizing that this entire infrastructure investment...almost all of it is allocated over five years, some is going to be 10 years...the thing to remember is it’s all paid for...and yet it is stretched out over a period of time, so it will create jobs.”

Axios co-founder & CEO Jim VandeHei hosted a View from the Top segment with United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby, who described the climate provisions in the infrastructure bill and the pending Build Back Better bill that are most impactful for the aviation industry.

  • “We’re not going to be able to fly big airplanes long distances on batteries or even hydrogen anytime in the foreseeable future, and because of that, we need to create sustainable aviation fuel. Today, that industry is tiny. The blender’s fuel tax credit would allow that industry to have certainty of investment.”

Thank you United Airlines for sponsoring this event.

University of Michigan reaches $490M settlement in sex abuse case

Jon Vaughn, a former University of Michigan and NFL football player, speaks at a press conference in Ann Arbor, Mich., in June 2021. Photo: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

The University of Michigan on Wednesday reached a $490 million settlement with over a thousand survivors who allege that they were sexually assaulted by a former physician in the school's athletic department.

Driving the news: "It's been a long and challenging journey and these survivors have refused to remain silent," attorney Parker Stinar said Wednesday.

4 hours ago - Technology

3D printing's next act: big metal objects

Chief Scientist Andy Bayramian makes modifications to the laser system on Seurat's 3D metal printer. Photo courtesy of Seurat Technologies.

A new metal 3D printing technology could revolutionize the way large industrial products like planes and cars are made, reducing the cost and carbon footprint of mass manufacturing.

Why it matters: 3D printing — also called additive manufacturing — has been used since the 1980s to make small plastic parts and prototypes. Metal printing is newer, and the challenge has been figuring out how to make things like large car parts faster and cheaper than traditional methods.