Somewhere, buried amid thousands and thousands of public records, surveys and satellite images of the world's geology and topography are clues about where to find the rare earths needed to power the renewable and electric vehicle revolution.
At least, that's the bet that a number of the world's biggest investment and mining firms are taking with a recent $192.5 million investment into a startup called Kobold Metals.
Founded roughly four years ago in Berkeley, Calif., Kobold is one of several companies that's turning to artificial intelligence and robotics to identify the minerals needed to make the batteries, engines, motors, and turbine components behind new electric vehicles and renewable energy technologies.
The success of these companies is vital to securing the United States' place in the renewable energy revolution. Right now, most of these minerals are mined and processed elsewhere -- with the majority of the new energy supply chain running through China.
KoBold Metals wants to change that -- and they're not alone. KoBold's technology-enabled scouting for productive mining locations is just one of several offerings for big mining operations. Rio Tinto -- one of the world's biggest mining companies -- is working with the satellite imaging company, Pixxel, to find resources.
“This partnership will be pioneering in its deployment of hyperspectral satellite imagery for commercial mining operations,” said Pixxel co-founder and CEO Awais Ahmed, in a statement earlier this year. “Moreover, the exponential leap in image quality (50x more detail than existing multispectral satellite imagery) allows Rio Tinto the ability to assess Pixxel’s imagery for monitoring critical mining operations and make key decisions with sustainability in mind.”
Lunasonde is another startup that's also taking an eye-in-the-sky approach to finding the terrestrial materials needed to sustain a sustainable energy revolution.
KoBold has a who's who of the tech industry's biggest names behind it including Apollo Projects, which was founded by Sam and Max Altman to back moonshot technologies (Sam Altman famously ran Y Combinator -- an accelerator in Silicon Valley which launched household names like Airbnb, DoorDash, and Coinbase). Bond Capital, a firm founded by the technology investment analyst Mary Meeker, is also an investor along with BHP Group, a huge mining company.
The race to secure new supplies of the materials needed for the transition away from fossil fuels is forcing mining companies to accelerate their activities and look for deposits that are deeper beneath the surface of the Earth, as The Wall Street Journal noted in its reporting on the financing for KoBold Metals.
"Globally, shallow ore deposits have largely been discovered, and remaining resources are likely deeper underground and harder to see from the surface," said Keenan Jennings, vice-president of BHP Metals Exploration, in a statement. "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.