iCRAG partners with US start-up using AI to find metals for EVs

18 Mar 2021

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The SFI research centre will analyse mineral samples for Bill Gates-backed KoBold Metals.

Researchers in Ireland are teaming up with a Silicon Valley start-up in the search for critical minerals that are central to the world’s green transition.

iCRAG, the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) research centre for applied geosciences, is expanding its research activities in the area of critical raw materials by adding KoBold Metals as an industry partner.

KoBold is a mineral exploration company using machine learning and data analytics to increase the supply of raw materials such as cobalt, copper and nickel. There is a growing need for these metals due to the scaling production of electric vehicles (EVs), rechargeable batteries and consumer electronics.

The start-up is backed by Breakthrough Energy Ventures – a fund overseen by Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and many other business leaders – as well as Silicon Valley heavyweight Andreessen Horowitz.

“Stopping climate change requires fully electrifying the global automotive fleet, which in turn requires mining a lot more critical EV material such as nickel, cobalt, lithium and copper,” explained Kurt House, CEO and co-founder of KoBold Metals.

“By better understanding how high-grade deposits of these metals form, we will be better equipped to make exploration decisions and increase discovery success rates.”

‘Advancing the green transition’

Through this new industry collaboration, iCRAG researchers will use microscopy, geochemistry and spectrometry facilities at Trinity College Dublin to investigate minerals containing cobalt, as well as other elements often found in proximity to cobalt such as nickel and copper.

The team will analyse mineral samples to better understand how cobalt deposits form, and this will provide the basis of machine learning techniques developed by KoBold for the exploration of critical raw materials around the world.

“Advancing the green transition is a central goal of iCRAG’s research activities,” said Prof Murray Hitzman, director of iCRAG and SFI research professor at the UCD School of Earth Sciences.

“And this strategic collaboration with KoBold Metals enables our researchers to combine their expertise in geochemistry with the latest advances in machine learning to aid in the mineral exploration that is central to decarbonisation.”

Prof Mark Ferguson, director general of SFI, added that research centres such as iCRAG are “playing a leading role” in helping Ireland transition to a low-carbon economy.

“International industry partnerships such as this grow the potential for research excellence and scientific discovery that can help lead us to a more sustainable future,” he said.

This week, it was also revealed that seven projects have received funding under the US-Ireland Research and Development Partnership to boost R&D between researchers on both sides of the Atlantic.

One of these involves Prof Frank McDermott at iCRAG, who will be working with researchers at Queen’s University Belfast and the Centre for Bio-mediated and Bio-inspired Geotechnics in the US to investigate the use of microbes and enzymes to enhance bio-based strengthening for stabilising soil slopes.

Sarah Harford was sub-editor of Silicon Republic