Mining Deploys Innovative Tech to Find Copper, Other EV Metals

Miners are turning to machine learning, cutting-edge chemistry and other innovative tools to scale it up e5?mod=article_inline" target="_blank" class="icon none" rel="noopener">supplies of critical materials such as copper and graphite amid growing demand for green technologies.

In 2011, Nico Cuevas, a Mexican immigrant and Arizona resident, realized


will need a source of Graphite for battery anodes to make electric vehicles Luckily in the US, it happened that a friend’s family had an artisanal graphite mine in Mexico. Unfortunately it mined the wrong kind of graphite.

Twelve years later, Cuevas is chief executive of Urbix, an innovative graphite-producing startup based in Mesa, Ariz. It uses machine learning to create uniform graphite anodes suitable for use in EV batteries from a range of natural and synthetic forms. graphite. It has already agreed to supply graphite for its cells to South Korean battery and chip maker SK On.

Urbix is ​​one of several US startups developing alternative methods of discovering new supplies of critical minerals, providing critical innovation as supplies of these materials continue to grow.

governments and Companies are looking for new sources Supply of critical minerals to meet the growing demand for electric vehicles, batteries, renewable energy and electrification infrastructure. Despite several recent investment announcements, analysts forecast a shortfall in the coming years. “If all the planned projects are realized, and this is a big deal, they could meet about three-quarters of future energy needs,” said Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency.

China processes and produces most of the world’s vital minerals, leading to concerns that geopolitical tensions could cut off their supply to US manufacturers. of china Export Restrictions on Gallium and Germanium The latest instances are those starting on 1 August. However, to encourage domestic production, government support has been made available for US projects through bills such as last year’s Inflation Reduction Act.

Miners are discovering new deposits and investing in new processing facilities, but these efforts will take years if not decades to start production. Others are looking to innovation – looking for more new ways to increase yields and even recover materials from existing mine waste.

machine learning

Machine learning is proving to be a way to increase yields and reduce carbon emissions from critical mineral processing.

Graphite is a naturally occurring form of carbon in which the structure of the atoms allows it to Energy is stored and distributed within the battery, so it is used for batteries as anodes in lithium-ion cells. “The anode stores energy in a battery like a dish sponge. You squeeze it and energy flows,” Cuevas said.

The EV industry typically uses the flake form, but Urbix has tested more than 50 to 60 sources. “How can we build a machine learning predictive control model mechanism so that the process can adapt to a specific feed to produce the same end product?” Cuevas said. “We have created a universal recipe for select sources of graphite.”

Cuevas said that through The machine learning-based technology significantly reduces waste, with 80% of inputs being used as raw materials in the final product. Yields are typically around one-third that using conventional 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 production of 28,000 tonnes per year by 2026 and increase it to 320,000 tonnes in 2032, sourcing graphite from Latin America, Madagascar, Tanzania and northern Europe.

bio surfactants

Another innovator is Locus Fermentation Solutions, a Solon, Ohio-based chemical business that aims to increase copper production yields by using bio-surfactants from natural sources such as yeast. Bio-surfactants are chemicals from micro-organisms that break the surface tension of a given substance. They are commonly used in cosmetics, health care and pesticides.

Copper is one of the key metals for green transition. Electric vehicles use six times more copper wiring than gas-powered vehicles.


Luke Charrett/Bloomberg News

Copper is typically processed in one of two ways: either by soaking the crushed ore in a solution of water and chemicals that allows the target minerals to float to the surface or by dissolving the rock in acid, a process known as leaching, allowing the minerals to float to the top. , Locus says that incorporating bio-surfactants into this part of the process will increase yields.

“We are improving ore recovery by using bio-surfactants,” said Gabe Nessel, vice president of mining and mineral processing at the firm.

Locus says its bio-surfactants are far better than existing chemicals at breaking the surface tension of rocks and binding to copper. By adding bio-surfactants along with other chemicals during the soaking process, more copper floats to the surface and less is wasted. Similarly, adding bio-surfactants to the leaching process helps break down the surface of the dissolved rock, allowing more acid to penetrate and thus pick up more copper. Locus says its bio-surfactants increase copper yield by up to 7%, and save energy because less rock needs to be crushed. It is also testing its process on iron ore and tailings waste.

Copper is one of the key metals for green transition. Electric vehicles, for example, use six times more copper wiring than gas-powered vehicles.

“The world is getting electrified,” Knesel said. “Mining companies are under pressure on two fronts: they need to deliver the volume of materials to transition and there is also pressure from investors and customers and communities to be more eco-friendly. Locus covers both the fronts,” he said.

Locus is working with major mining companies including BHP


Knesel said the main points of interest are the energy savings from the new technology as well as the increase in yield.

my trash

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Emergency crews search for bodies after the Brumadinho tailings dam collapse in Brazil in 2019. Now Phoenix Tailings, a Woburn, Mass.-based startup, aims to recover rare earths from the tailings.


Douglas Magno/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Groups concerned about the environment often talk about mining waste or so-called tailings, less so from mining companies. Tailings dams have collapsed causing huge disasters: The Brumadinho tailings dam failure in Brazil 270 people and mine owner died in 2019


agree to do $7 billion settlement, Even apart from disasters, water pollution and other environmental issues are still a matter of concern.

Woburn, Mass.-based startup Phoenix Tellings sees potential in that waste — it aims to recover rare earths from the remains. “We want to clean up the world in the process of producing the metals we need,” said Nicholas Myers, the company’s CEO. “In the long term we need to get more suppliers of these metals, especially the rare earths.”

Phoenix locates mine sites where residual waste is free of radioactive elements such as thorium and uranium. It then mines and processes the waste to recover the rare earths needed in permanent magnets for green technologies such as electric vehicles and offshore wind turbines. According to Myers, the idea of ​​tapping mine waste has not been tried on a wide scale, and so theoretically hundreds of sites could use this method to recover target minerals.

“Almost the entire supply of rare earths comes from China so we thought this was an area where we could make a difference,” Myers said. The company currently has a pilot facility in upstate New York, and says it produces zero waste by recycling what’s left over from processing residues.

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