By Irina Slav
A startup by the name of KoBold Metals is using big data analytics and modeling to create the equivalent of Google Maps of the earth’s crust with a very specific purpose: “to explore for new sources of ethical cobalt from reliable jurisdictions.”
Some 60 percent of the world’s cobalt, as a by-product of copper and nickel mining, is located in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which doesn’t exactly have an excellent track record in areas such as child labor, to mention just one. Calls for finding a more ethical way to source cobalt and other battery metals have been numerous, but until now, following them has been problematic because of the lack of alternatives.
However, the financial backers of KoBold Metals, among them Bill Gates, Ray Dalio, Jeff Bezos, and Michael Bloomberg, seem to believe technology has advanced sufficiently to make it possible to tap hitherto undiscovered cobalt deposits outside the DRC.
“What we’re building is basically Google Maps for the earth’s crust and below,” Bloomberg quotesConnie Chan, partner in Andreesen Horowitz, a venture capital find that has also invested in KoBold Metals, as saying.
The implications of this project, if successful, would be major. “People just haven’t looked for the stuff,” the chief executive of KoBold Metals Kurt House told Bloomberg. “There’s very limited history of exploration at all outside of piggybacking on nickel and copper deposits.”
Yet there is one cobalt mine where the metal is not being extracted as a by-product, which has given the company and its backers hopes it won’t be the only one. There just hasn’t been any exploration specifically targeting cobalt because traditionally, the demand for the metal has not bee that great for it to matter so much.
Now that things are changing with the advent of electric vehicles, and despite a recent price slump, the outlook for cobalt is optimistic: batteries are being used in a growing number of devices, not to mention EVs. All big carmakers have lined up several EV models due to be released over the next five years and all these cars will need batteries, which will need cobalt.
There is a lot of research into new types of batteries going on right now, aiming to basically unseat lithium ion from its pedestal, but it will be a while until these alternatives prove their viability and superiority to the dominant technology–and this dominant technology performs better with cobalt, which is why KoBold Metals sees demand for the metal remaining strong in the coming years.
For now, the company has identified several potential deposits of cobalt in the United States and Canada, and will explore these using its proprietary technology. Whether the tech will live up to the promise of finding commercially viable reserves of ethical cobalt remains to be seen. In any case, it is doing something that hasn’t been done before in yet another example of how digital technology is transforming the energy and mining commodities industries by opening up access to resources hitherto inaccessible.