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Mining the gap: Companies push to find raw materials for electric vehicle boom

KoBold, which hunts for minerals for batteries, is one of many companies founded in recent years to address the various bottlenecks in the broader push toward renewable energy.

STONY RAPIDS, Saskatchewan — Kurt House is in a hurry.

He’s looking for the key minerals — cobalt, copper and nickel — that go into the batteries that can power clean energy technologies, particularly the incoming demand from electric vehicles. That is why in August he watched as a helicopter flew past with a massive metal detector swinging beneath it, scanning a vast section of this remote Canadian wilderness.

The device, akin to a giant dream catcher at 115 feet across and weighing 1,700 pounds, peered a third of a mile into the earth by using an electromagnetic current. The data it collects is key to trying to speed up what has traditionally been the slow, painstaking process of mineral discovery.

“The problem we’re trying to solve is global climate change, and to do it we have to electrify everything,” said House, CEO of KoBold Metals, the company he co-founded to hunt for the crucial minerals. “The problem is we don’t have enough metal to build all those electric vehicles, so we need to find a lot more.”

KoBold is one of many companies founded in recent years to address the various bottlenecks in the broader push toward renewable energy. And the mineral bottleneck is a particularly narrow one.

The Fond du Lac River runs through Stony Rapids, Saskatchewan. The small town is the base for mining exploration operations being run by California-based KoBold Metals.David Douglas / NBC News

To meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement, House estimated the world needs $10 trillion dollars in new discoveries of the four key metals — cobalt, copper, nickel and lithium — that go into the batteries of electric vehicles. Others believe there are enough discovered sources, but the deposits are not located in places hospitable to mining operations. Elsewhere, productive mines are met with human rights concerns. For instance, about 70 percent of the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where children sometimes toil in mines

Because of that, other companies are focused on refining how the metals are mined, particularly in places where current methods are hard on the environment.

In northern Chile, Wealth Minerals, which is based in Vancouver, British Columbia, owns rights to a lithium mining claim right between two established, productive lithium mines. The traditional method of extraction is to remove brine containing lithium and let the water evaporate out to then separate the usable metal. 

It’s a practice that has drawn the ire of environmentalists.

“That’s become a little bit of a swear word,” said Henk van Alphen, CEO of Wealth Minerals. “You don’t really evaporate water in one of the driest regions in the world.”

Kurt House, CEO of KoBold Metals, explains to NBC News correspondent Anne Thompson how searching from the air first helps them find mineable mineral deposits.David Douglas / NBC News

In spite of the other two active mines, the Chilean government is requiring the company to find another workable method of extraction, which Wealth and its partners believe they have figured out. Van Alphen said there is similar pressure from the supply chain for operations to be as Earth-friendly as possible.

“Car companies are very, very worried about how the battery commodities are being produced around the world,” Van Alphen said. “They want to make sure it’s socially and environmentally responsible.”

House believes they can avoid some of those challenges by exploring only in areas that approve of mining from the start, applying KoBold’s proprietary technology to speed up the discovery process. 

After each day’s helicopter flights, his company sends the data it collects to its team in Berkeley, California. Data scientists use machine learning to run what’s collected each day past thousands of historical data points sourced from mining discoveries all around the world — some of them hundreds of years old. While KoBold employs its own geologists, they’ve learned in a short time that even the best human forecasts for where a mineable deposit might be are frequently off. The combination of teams in the air, on the ground and in Berkeley, they believe, are key to making it work.

The group has some considerable backing. Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos have invested in the company, and BHP Group, one of the world’s largest mining companies, signed a deal with KoBold to explore for battery metals in Australia and elsewhere around the world. The deal will keep KoBold busy: It covers an exploration area of nearly 200,000 square miles.

Workers prepare an electronic survey device that will be used to hunt for mineral deposits underground.David Douglas / NBC News

M. Stephen Enders, a professor who heads the mining engineering department at the Colorado School of Mines and spent four decades in the exploration business, said speed matters.

 “The faster you can target, the faster you can fail, and ultimately the more likely you’re going to be successful,” Enders, who is not affiliated with KoBold, said.

While battery technology has improved, demand for minerals is expected to grow quickly.

 In January, General Motors rocked the auto industry when it announced the company would sell only zero-emission passenger vehicles by 2035. On its way to electrification, GM has reduced its cobalt use by 70 percent along with other companies that have faced headwinds about the most common source of the mineral.

“We’re gonna need a lot more lithium,” said Tim Grewe, GM’s director of electrification strategy. 

GM has already innovated its way to smaller batteries that go much farther. The GMC Hummer EV Pickup, which can travel more than 300 miles on a single charge, will be released later this year. Between 2016 and today, the company has reduced its battery costs by 40 percent but acknowledged that to make its entire range of vehicles both electric and affordable, it will have to do better.

“To make EVs more affordable, we have to work on the total system,” Grewe said. “How do we get the lowest cost elements out of the ground, use them in the vehicle, and how do we have secondary use in recycling to have it all come back?”

GM, of course, is not the only one innovating. Sila, a company based in Alameda, California, has developed a battery that uses silicon in its anode, which made it lighter and more powerful. So far the technology has been deployed in a fitness wearable, but the company told NBC News it hopes the technology will enter the EV market in 2025.

And innovation could come as a threat to House’s KoBold. As Enders at the Colorado School of Mines pointed out, the average time to develop and build a mine after discovery sits around 17 years.

“It’s a bet on the technology being in play when they’re ready to get value out of their discoveries,” Enders said. “Who would have thought a few years ago that lead acid batteries would be replaced by lithium-ion batteries?”

House said he’s still willing to bet on minerals. 

“The fossil fuel economy is a one-way trip,” he said. “When we mine new metal for an electric vehicle, we can recycle it 20, 30 times. And eventually we won’t need to mine at all.”