Miners are turning to machine learning, advanced chemistry and other innovative ways to increase the supply of critical materials such as copper and graphite amid growing demand for green technologies.
In 2011, Nico Cuevas, a Mexican immigrant and resident of Arizona, realized that Tesla would need a source of graphite for battery anodes to build electric vehicles in the United States. Luckily, a friend’s family happened to own an artisanal graphite mine in Mexico. Unfortunately, he extracted the wrong type of graphite.
Twelve years later, Cuevas is CEO of startup Urbix, an innovative graphite producer based in Mesa, Arizona. It uses machine learning to determine how to create uniform graphite anodes suitable for EV batteries from a range of natural and synthetic forms of graphite. It has already agreed to supply SK On, a South Korean battery and chip maker, with graphite for its cells.
Urbix is one of many US startups developing alternative methods in finding new supplies of critical minerals, providing crucial innovation as the supply of these materials tightens ever further.
Governments and businesses are looking for new sources of critical minerals to meet growing demand for electric vehicles, batteries, renewable energy and electrification infrastructure. Despite a recent flurry of investment announcements, analysts predict deficits in the coming years. “If all the planned projects are carried out, and that’s a big if, they could cover almost three-quarters of energy needs in the future,” said Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency.
China processes and produces most of the world’s critical minerals, raising fears that geopolitical tensions could cut off their supply to US manufacturers. China’s export restrictions on gallium and germanium effective August 1 are the latest example. Government support for US projects has been made available, however, through bills such as last year’s Inflation Reduction Act, to encourage domestic production.
Miners have searched for new deposits and invested in new processing facilities, but these efforts will take years, if not decades, to start producing. Others are turning to innovation, seeking new ways to increase yields and even recover materials from existing mine waste.
Machine learning is proving to be a way to increase yields and reduce carbon emissions from processing critical minerals.
Graphite is a natural form of carbon in which the structure of the atoms allows the energy to be retained and distributed within a battery, hence its use as an anode in lithium-ion cells for batteries. “An anode stores energy in the battery like a washing-up sponge. You squeeze it and the energy flows,” Cuevas said.
The EV industry most often uses the flake form, but Urbix has tested over 50-60 sources. “How can we create a machine learning predictive control model mechanism so that the process can adapt to specific flows to create the same end product?” Cuevas said. “We have created a universal recipe for selecting sources of graphite.”
Cuevas said that thanks to this Technical waste based on machine learning is significantly reduced, with 80% of what is used as raw material being used in the final product. Yields are generally around one-third using traditional methods.
Urbix has received Series C funding and has a pilot plant running. It is also building a commercial demonstration facility. It aims to start producing 28,000 tonnes per year by 2026 and grow to 320,000 tonnes from 2032, sourcing graphite from Latin America, Madagascar, Tanzania and Northern Europe.
Another innovator is Locus Fermentation Solutions, a Solon, Ohio-based chemical company that aims to increase yields from copper production by using bio-surfactants from natural sources like yeast. Bio-surfactants are chemicals from microbes that break down the surface tension of a given material. They are commonly used in cosmetics, healthcare, and pesticides.
Typically, copper is processed in two ways: either by soaking the crushed ore in a solution of water and chemicals which allows the target minerals to float to the surface, or by dissolving the rocks in acid, called leaching, allowing the minerals to float to the top. Locus claims that introducing bio-surfactants into this part of the process will increase yields.
“We are improving ore recovery by applying bio-surfactants,” said Gabi Knesel, the company’s vice president of mining and mineral processing.
Locus claims its bio-surfactants are much better than existing chemicals at breaking the surface tension of rocks and bonding to copper. By adding bio-surfactants along with the other chemicals during the soaking process, more copper floats to the surface and less is wasted. Likewise, the addition of bio-surfactants to the leaching process helps to break up the surface of the dissolved rock, allowing more acid to penetrate and thereby lifting more copper. Locus claims its bio-surfactants increase copper yields by 7% and save energy because less rock needs to be crushed. It is also testing its process on iron ore and mine tailings.
Copper is one of the key metals in the green transition. Electric vehicles, for example, use six times more copper cables than gasoline-powered vehicles.
“The world is electrifying,” Knesel said. “Mining companies are under pressure on two fronts: they have to deliver the amount of materials needed for the transition and there is also pressure from investors, customers and communities to be more environmentally friendly. Locus covers both fronts,” she said.
Locus works with major mining companies including BHP and Glencore,
with key points of interest being the energy saved by the new technique as well as increased yield, Knesel said.
Environmentally conscious groups frequently talk about mining waste or so-called tailings, mining companies less so. Tailings dams have collapsed, leading to huge disasters: the failure of the Brumadinho tailings dam in Brazil in 2019 killed 270 people and mine owner Vale agreed to a $7 billion settlement. Even outside of disasters, issues of water contamination and other environmental issues are always a concern.
The startup Phoenix Tailings, based in Woburn, Massachusetts, sees potential in this waste: it aims to recover rare earths from tailings. “We want to clean up the world by producing the metals we need,” said company CEO Nicholas Myers. “In the long term, we need to find more suppliers of these metals, rare earths in particular. »
Phoenix finds mine sites where tailings waste is free of radioactive elements such as thorium and uranium. It then extracts and processes the waste to recover the rare earths needed for permanent magnets in green technologies such as electric vehicles and offshore wind turbines. The idea of mining waste mining has not been tried on a larger scale, according to Myers, and so hundreds of sites could theoretically use this method to recover target minerals.
“Almost all of the rare earths supply comes from China, so that’s an area where we thought we could make a difference,” Myers said. The company currently has a pilot facility in upstate New York and claims to produce zero waste by recycling what is left over from tailings treatment.
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