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BHP links up with Bill Gates-backed AI start-up to prospect for metals

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BHP has struck a deal to use artificial intelligence tools developed by a Bill Gates-backed start-up to find new deposits of metals needed for batteries and clean energy.

The world’s biggest miner and Silicon Valley-based KoBold Metals will jointly fund exploration using data processing technology to help predict the location of mineral deposits, starting in Western Australia.

The partnership comes as demand for battery metals such as lithium and nickel is expected to surge as sales of electric cars boom. Large lithium-ion batteries are also increasingly being used to store renewable energy from intermittent sources such as wind and solar.

BHP has pledged to focus on “future-facing” commodities such as nickel, following its decision to sell off its oil and gas business last month. The miner, which supplies nickel to Tesla, is also an investor in a number of start-ups via its internal venture capital arm.

“Their powerful platform combined with our in-house capabilities and data sets could unlock an enduring competitive edge as we grow our options in future-facing commodities like copper and nickel to meet increasing global demand,” said Mark Frayman, head of BHP Ventures.

KoBold, founded in 2018, collects vast troves of historical and scientific data and uses algorithms to identify where mineral deposits might be below the earth’s surface.

It then surveys the potential areas using aircraft and satellite surveys, feeding the data back into the computer models, which in turn tell its geologists where to look.

“KoBold’s technology has been designed to pick up faint signals in the data pointing to hidden ore deposits,” the company said.

KoBold has explored for mineral deposits in Canada, Australia and several African countries. Last month it signed a joint venture agreement with BlueJay Mining to explore for minerals in Greenland.

“The exploration process is a very manual, very human process right now and we’re augmenting the human,” said Kurt House, KoBold chief executive. “What we do is efficiency of information — is rigorously assess what the most useful information to gather is.”

KoBold is backed by venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz as well as Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures.

Keenan Jennings, vice-president of BHP Metals Exploration, said the technology would help it find mineral deposits that were deeper underground because a lot of shallow deposits had already been discovered.

“We need new approaches to find the next generation of essential minerals, and this alliance will combine historical data, artificial intelligence, and geoscience expertise to uncover what has previously been hidden,” he said.


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