Researchers locate critical mineral deposits with AI

Oct. 16, 2023, 10:54 p.m.

The Doerr School of Sustainability hosted a launch symposium this summer for Mineral-X, a new affiliate program that combines technological innovation with community representation and stewardship with the ultimate goal of a resilient mineral supply chain to achieve clean renewable energy.

The symposium — attended by leaders from various mining companies and venture capital firms as well as academics, government officials and representatives from Zambia — aimed to gather stakeholders and open dialogue about how to improve the critical mineral mining industry from both a social and a technical point of view. 

“The symposium that we plan to hold every year is already Silicon Valley’s biggest symposium on critical minerals,” said David Zhen Yin, a Mineral-X program director and research scientist. 

Mineral-X is one of the largest affiliate programs in the school of sustainability, with almost a million dollars in funding. The project has backing from mining companies KoBold Metals and Rio Tinto, as well as Bidra, a venture capital firm focused on sustainability.  

Yin later clarified to The Daily via email that Mineral-X “is entirely free of fossil fuel funds.”

According to its website, the project aims to “reinvent mineral exploration beyond just science. We plan to develop protocols whereby mineral exploration champions environmental stewardship and community representation.” 

The goal of the program is an almost holistic approach to improving the mining industry during the economy’s transition away from fossil fuels. This includes both more efficient and environmentally friendly methods for finding and extracting critical minerals, as well as improved community engagement and educational assistance. 

“[At] Mineral-X we have a lot of projects on various subjects about exploration, remote sensing and also [engaging] with the community,” Yin said, adding that these efforts have spread rapidly across the globe, including in Africa, Indonesia, Western Australia and the United States. 

Jef Caers, a professor of earth and planetary sciences, co-founded Mineral-X. Caers began his career as an assistant professor of petroleum engineering and made the transition to earth and planetary sciences five years ago. 

“I decided that at that time that I had enough of the oil industry. It was at [that] time also when I started to find out that they’re pretty much lying about everything they were saying, and in particular, lying about the green energy transition and how they were investing in geothermal,” Caers said, reflecting on the transition. 

At the heart of the Mineral-X initiative is its research using AI tools to examine geological data and more accurately find high-grade subsurface mineral deposits. Demand for critical minerals used in electrical vehicle production such as copper, nickel, lithium and cobalt has skyrocketed in recent years and industry analysts expect this growth to keep accelerating. 

“Figuring out how we will find or obtain the massive amount of metals required to transition the energy grid from hydrocarbon-dominated to a renewable-dominated is a major challenge in sustainability,” wrote Erik Sperling, an associate professor of earth & planetary sciences at Stanford who is not involved in the Mineral-X program, in an email to The Daily. 

“Given that there has been very little emphasis on mining or sustainability at the base of the metals supply chain at Stanford in the past two decades, it is exciting to see the work done at Mineral-X,” Sperling wrote.

Work is being done to improve material yield for battery recycling, but estimates highlight a need for greater mining capacity to keep up with global demand moving forward.

Global demand for batteries is expected to surge over the next decade. In a January report, analysts at McKinsey predicted a 30% year over year growth in demand between now and 2030. Much of this demand is attributed to the continued adoption of electric vehicles. 

To satiate this demand the output of new minerals from mining operations will have to increase. “Almost 60 percent of today’s lithium is mined for battery-related applications, a figure that could reach 95 percent by 2030,” the report read.

“We have no more new discoveries. People are continuing with the current discoveries which have increasingly low grade,” Caers said. Low grade sites require a tremendous amount of soil to be turned over and often result in massive deforestation, as evidenced in Indonesia. Surface level deposits in general are becoming more and more difficult to find. 

“Most of the ‘easy’ deposits have been found, and more sophisticated techniques are clearly required for finding buried deposits,” Sperling wrote.

According to Mineral-X, the solution is to use a myriad of geological data and AI tools to try to locate high-grade subsurface deposits. 

“Because the grade is so high you don’t need to destroy much land, plus you can have underground development,” Yin said. 

Traditionally, mining companies take exploratory samples in a grid pattern, but using computer algorithms and tools developed in conjunction with Mineral-X, KoBold is now using AI to distribute its exploratory drill sites more efficiently. This allows the company to find these subsurface deposits in less time and for less cost.

“I think that there is a need for programs that look specifically only at the energy transition that does not involve fossil fuel funding, and also focuses on the social outreach program at the same time, and not just as a sideshow,” Caers said.

Sofia Mantilla Salas, a Ph.D. student involved with social outreach for the project, is currently in Zambia working with mining communities to answer their questions, gauge their needs and make sure they are active partners in the process of mineral exploration and extraction, not just bystanders. 

Aside from working with local communities, Mineral-X is also working with universities in Zambia to help them be able to support domestic mining engineers and help equip them with the skills necessary to compete with foreign engineers. 

Through curating a coursework that combines geology with AI and data science, Caers hopes to incorporate this new perspective into mining exploration right in Zambia. To further this goal, the project has also established a scholarship for 10 college students in Zambia to learn geology with an AI and data science focus.

“It is time for a new generation of environmental leaders to step forward to take on this issue of metals for electrification and the green economy,” Sperling wrote.

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