A.I. Helped to Spot a Copper Mining Bonanza in Zambia

AI Helped to Spot a Copper Mining Bonanza in Zambia
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Peering into their computer screens in California last year, the data crunchers watched a subterranean fortune come into focus.

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What they saw transported them 10,000 miles across the world, to Zambia, and then one more mile straight down into the Earth. A rich lode of copper, deep in the bedrock, appeared before them, its contours revealed by a complex A.I.-driven technology they’d been painstakingly building for years.

On Thursday, their company, KoBold Metals, informed its business partners that their find is likely the largest copper discovery in more than a decade. According to their estimates, reviewed by The New York Times, the mine would produce at least 300,000 tons of copper a month once fully operational. That corresponds to a value of billions of dollars a year, for decades.

The New York Times also reviewed an independent, third-party assessment of KoBold’s claims, which, while slightly more conservative than KoBold’s own, largely corroborated the size of the deposit. In a statement, KoBold said it expected the value of the mine to grow because it had yet to map the full extent of its highest-grade ore.

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It’s the first confirmed success for a company that hopes to radically transform the way we find metals critical not only to the tech industry but to the fight against climate change. The geopolitical significance is vast. KoBold’s find comes as the United States and China are increasingly clashing over global access to the minerals needed to manufacture clean-energy technologies.

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KoBold originated half a decade ago in the belated realization among Silicon Valley’s barons of what lay ahead.

Their products had become the backbone of the United States economy. But their businesses couldn’t grow much further without a gargantuan increase in the mining of a handful of raw materials that make batteries, without which everything from cellphones to electric trucks simply can’t function. They needed far more copper, cobalt, lithium and nickel.

Hundreds of new mines would be necessary, analysts calculated. And not just for consumer products, but for the house-sized lithium-ion batteries needed for backup on the nation’s power grids as solar and wind power ebbs and flows.

A.I. data centers demand huge amounts of copper. Advanced weaponry requires nickel and cobalt.

Over two decades of production, KoBold’s find in Zambia would yield enough copper for 100 million of today’s average-size electric vehicle batteries.

“The more you realize how dependent we are on these technologies, the more you ask: How the hell were we so slow to the fact that we needed vast amounts of raw material to make it all possible?” said Connie Chan, a partner at Andreessen Horowitz, the biggest venture capital firm in the United States and an early investor in KoBold.

The traditional mining industry lacked a convincing solution. Using exploration techniques largely unchanged in a century, the cost of new discoveries was rising while the pace of the finds slowed.

Around the same time, the U.S. government had a similar lightbulb moment. America had become far too reliant on China for these essential resources.

China had been heavily investing in global mining and metal processing, and controlled the production of 20 to 80 percent of its supply chains. The United States, on the other hand, has relatively few processing plants or mines, domestic or foreign, for most battery metals.

The International Energy Forum, a research organization, recently estimated that the world would need between 35 and 194 large new mines for copper alone through 2050. That translates to between one and six new copper mines, every year, the size of the one KoBold plans to dig in Zambia.

Investors from American and European private equity funds that collectively manage trillions of dollars in assets, including ones started by Silicon Valley giants like Bill Gates and Sam Altman of OpenAI, were joined by more traditional industrial companies in putting hundreds of millions of dollars into KoBold.

It already has exploration projects in 60-odd countries. In some cases, like Zambia, where production is expected to begin in the early 2030s, it plans to own stakes in the mines themselves.

Its chief executive and co-founder, Kurt House, embraces the moneymaking potential of KoBold’s technology, which is the company’s alone to profit from. He is fond of saying “I don’t need to be reminded again that I’m a capitalist.”

The work is about to get a lot less theoretical.

KoBold is pumping $2.3 billion into its first mine and is negotiating tricky partnerships with contractors and governments alike. It is relying on the U.S. government to finance a new railway to export the copper. And, like the mining barons of yore, its leaders will soon be exposed to the social and environmental trade-offs that almost all mining poses.

On a quiet residential street in Oakland, Calif., Tom Hunt, who leads a team of data scientists at KoBold, gathered colleagues on Zoom. His setup was quintessentially white-collar. He and his wife, Lauren, share a work-from-home space. When he got animated explaining something, she peeked in from the porch.

The few clues to his life and work were on his desk, where a miniature model of the copper find in Zambia sat below a note from Lauren saying how much she loved him.

Beaming in from Southern California was Daniel Snowden-Ifft, head of the physics department at Occidental College in Los Angeles. He had dedicated much of his career to looking for dark matter. “I spent 20 years and never found any,” he said. Now, he’s developing a device that KoBold might use to find especially valuable members of the periodic table.

His gadget would be lowered into a drill hole, from where it would shoot out muons, infinitesimal subatomic particles, and send back density readings of the hidden underground world.

It’s a technique that would be new to mining, but it has a proven, if unusual, record. Previously it’s been used to suss out the location of burial chambers in Egyptian pyramids. Researchers have studied its potential for pinpointing illegal cross-border tunnels.

The muon detector is at the futuristic end of KoBold’s growing database, called TerraShed. At the other are yellowing paper maps and typewritten reports gathering cobwebs in Zambia’s mining archives, many a century old or more, which KoBold is digitizing. Elsewhere, KoBold collects its own radar and magnetic readings by flying modified Cessnas over promising territory.

TerraShed includes tens of millions of documents that can be overlaid to yield three-dimensional models of what might lie below.

“We think we’re mostly done with the easy era of mining,” said Mr. Hunt, who joined KoBold after working at Google and other Silicon Valley companies.

KoBold’s discovery is a case in point. The area of Zambia where it was found is known for copper. In fact, its name is Copperbelt Province. Still, nobody had been able to home in on this mile-deep vein until KoBold did, right under everyone’s noses.

The economies of Zambia and its colonial-era predecessor, Northern Rhodesia, have long been defined by copper, a material that humans have sought for millenniums. Well before wire heralded the modern age of electricity, copper was essential to Bronze Age toolmaking. Many of Zambia’s best mines were originally spotted simply because colonial officials noticed that local people had already been mining them, sometimes for centuries.

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Finding other battery metals will present bigger challenges.

Lithium, for instance, wasn’t widely sought until a few decades ago. Mr. House, the KoBold chief executive, said this was exactly why the exploration industry needed to get creative. “We don’t drill for metals, we drill for information,” he said. “It puts the science into eureka.”

Mr. House estimated that TerraShed contained about 3 percent of the world’s available geological data.

Back on Mr. Hunt’s Zoom screen, Audrey Lawrence, who manages TerraShed, raised her hands above her head and spread them out in trying to explain how big 3 percent already is. In doing so, she set off Zoom’s automatic fireworks reaction.

KoBold’s find looks like a proof of concept with potentially huge payout for investors. And the company’s partners include Zambia itself: The state mining company owns 20 percent.

That Zambians will benefit, though, is far from a foregone conclusion. Mining has left waste piled across Copperbelt Province, spawning lawsuits. One case alleges that local rivers at one point ran bright blue with copper tailings. And despite a century of mining, Zambia remains one of the world’s least-developed and most indebted countries.

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“The value of copper that has left Zambia is in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Hold that figure in your mind, and then look around yourself in Zambia,” said Grieve Chelwa, a Zambian economist. “The link between resource and benefit is severed.”

KoBold’s biggest investors are the heirs of that legacy of inequity. Copper from Zambia helped build the economies on which Silicon Valley fortunes are based. KoBold says it aims to uplift local communities, and has attracted some of Zambia’s top geologists back to the country from overseas.

But given the specific type of mine KoBold plans to dig, it’s unclear if many locals will get hired. Underground mines, like this one will be, typically employ far fewer people than open-pit mines.

Kennedy Bondola, 40, worked in a nearby open-pit mine for 15 years before it was nearly exhausted. He lives in Kawama, a village directly above KoBold’s find. Kawama is poor but resourceful. Its main road was busy with welders repairing household goods on a recent afternoon. Bar owners brewed their own liquor. Others smuggled maize flour into Congo, a mile or two away, where it can fetch double the price.

With a new mine, Mr. Bondola said, there was only one way Kawama could go: up. “Maybe it will become a real town,” he said.

KoBold’s team is still determining exactly where to dig the mine’s shaft. There is a lake directly above the ore, and a major highway, along with the village of Kawama.

“For a find this valuable, there’s nothing on the surface we can’t move,” said George Gilchrist, a South African geologist who is leading KoBold’s exploration in Zambia.

In an interview in the capital, Lusaka, the Zambian president, Hakainde Hichilema, said one way to ensure greater benefits was for his country to own more of the mine. He said he was pressing KoBold to increase the share owned by the state mining company to above one-third. The extra money “will allow us to invest in sectors that ordinarily are difficult for us,” he said.

Mr. Hichilema is desperate for revenue.

More than a third of his budget goes toward repaying international debts, leaving little for health and education. Most of the capital gets only a few hours of electricity per day. It will take more than a slightly bigger stake in one mine, however large the mine may be, to solve that.

“The benefits of this mine for Zambia,” Dr. Chelwa said, “are purely theoretical at this point.”

For the United States government, the benefits are far more clear.

“We are the American beachhead in Africa,” said Jennifer Fendrick, KoBold’s director for government affairs. “And that’s how the government sees it.” Before joining KoBold, she was the State Department’s lead strategist on critical minerals.

While the U.S. government hasn’t directly invested in KoBold, it is partially underwriting a $2.3 billion railway to the Angolan coast from Copperbelt Province, enabling copper to be more easily be shipped to the United States. It’s Washington’s single-biggest investment to catch up to Beijing in Africa’s battery-metal sweepstakes.

Recently, Mr. House prepared to meet face-to-face with Mr. Hichilema. He was accompanied by his main investors along with Linnisa Wahid, the acting U.S. ambassador. Mr. House, wearing a lapel pin with the American and Zambian flags, asked for Ms. Wahid’s help when he brought up the railway.

“Your affirmation at that moment would be great,” he said.

While U.S. mining interests in Zambia are progressing, accessing neighboring Congo’s cobalt reserves is trickier. China-based companies own or have major stakes in most cobalt-producing sites in Congo, which produced 76 percent of the world’s supply last year.

Biden administration officials are debating whether to lift sanctions on a billionaire Israeli mining executive accused of creating a web of corrupt practices in Congo’s mines. The sanctions have dissuaded American companies from investing there.

There are other ways the United States could procure battery metals, but they face big obstacles. Parts of the seabed are rich in critical minerals, but a dispute has raged for years over how, or whether, oceans should be mined. And more mines could be opened within the United States itself, but that prospect has drawn objections, particularly from Indigenous communities.

Whether the United States sticks with its climate goals also hinges on this year’s presidential election. A win by former President Donald J. Trump would very likely severely curtail energy transition incentives.

For now, the Biden administration is pushing ahead.

“We need 25 times as much cobalt as we currently mine,” said Jose W. Fernandez, the State Department’s top energy official, in an interview in New York recently, not to mention all the other metals and minerals reshaping the global economy. “We’ve got to get into the ring. We’ll be skewered if we fail.”



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