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How AI and Big Data Will Unlock the Next Wave of Mineral Discoveries

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How AI and Big Data Will Unlock the Next Wave of Mineral Discoveries

How AI and Big Data Will Unlock the Next Mineral Discovery

Emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning are rapidly proving their value across many industries.

Today’s infographic comes from GoldSpot Discoveries, and it shows that when this tech is applied to massive geological data sets, that there is growing potential to unlock the next wave of mineral discoveries.

Mineral Exploration: Fortunes Go to the Few

Discovering new sources of minerals, such as copper, gold, or even cobalt, can be notoriously difficult but also very rewarding. According to Goldspot, the chance of finding a new deposit is around 0.5%, with odds improving to 5% if exploration takes place near a known resource.

On the whole, mineral exploration has not been a winning prospect if you compare the total dollar spend and the actual value of the resulting discoveries.

Measuring Discovery Performance by Region (2005 to 2014)

Region Exploration SpendEstimated Value of DiscoveriesValue/Spend ratio
Australia$13 billion$13 billion0.97
Canada$25 billion$19 billion0.77
USA$10 billion$5 billion0.48
Latin America$33 billion$19 billion0.57
Pacific/SE Asia$8 billion$4 billion0.49
Africa$20 billion$23 billion1.19
Western Europe$4 billion$2 billion0.42
Rest of World$27 billion$8 billion0.32
Total$140 billion$93 billion0.57

Figures in 2014 dollars. (Source: MinEx Consulting, March 2015)

Aside from the geographic insights, on the surface this data reveals that mineral exploration does not pay for itself. That said, there are still significant discoveries worth billions of dollars – it’s just the returns go inordinately to a few small players that make big finds.

Much of the money spent on exploration may not have produced the next great discovery, but you can be sure it created massive volumes of data that could be used for further refining of exploration models.

So, What is the Problem?

Every exploration failure or success produces geological insights. The mineral exploration process is the source of massive amounts of data in the form of soil samples, chip samples, geochemistry, drill results, and assay results. Each drill hole is a tiny snapshot into the processes that form the earth.

A single drill hole can create 200 megabytes of data and when there are many drill holes coupled with other types of information, an exploration project can produce terabytes of data. If you wanted to compare your one project to hundreds of others to find the best insights, the amount of data becomes dizzying.

All these data points are clues that can be used to find new mineral deposits, but to sort through them is too much for even an entire team of capable geologists.

Luckily, using today’s technology, this data can now be used to train computers to spot the areas showing similar patterns to past discoveries.

AI-Assistance

The true power of AI will be in its ability to empower technically trained professionals to make decisions in an increasingly complex and data-driven world.

Professor Ajay Agrawal, a noted academic in AI and founder of the University of Toronto’s Creative Destruction Lab, categorizes human activities into five categories:

  1. Data collection
  2. Information retrieval
  3. Prediction
  4. Judgment
  5. Action

He concludes that machines should do the first three and that humans – such as geologists, doctors, lawyers, investment bankers and others – should make the judgment calls and take the actions based on predictive capabilities of AI.

The mineral exploration industry presents a good example of how AI and big data can help technical professionals make discoveries faster, with less money, using a wide variety of data inputs created.

Opportunity Generator and the AI-friendly Future

AI can take the large amounts of data from many different projects in order to spot the right opportunities to further explore, building on decades of geological data from projects around the world.

The right technology can help reduce the risk inherent in exploration and lead to more mineral discoveries on budget, rewarding those that deployed their data most effectively. Companies that are able to harness this power will tip the scales in their favor.

As a result, mineral exploration is no longer so much an art of interpretation – but instead, it becomes closer to a pure science, giving geologists a whole-field perspective of all the data.

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Base Metals

All the World’s Metals and Minerals in One Visualization

This massive infographic reveals the dramatic scale of 2019 non-fuel mineral global production.

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All the World’s Metals and Minerals in One Visualization

We live in a material world, in that we rely on materials to make our lives better. Without even realizing it, humans consume enormous amounts of metals and minerals with every convenient food package, impressive building, and technological innovation.

Every year, the United States Geological Service (USGS) publishes commodity summaries outlining global mining statistics for over 90 individual minerals and materials. Today’s infographic visualizes the data to reveal the dramatic scale of 2019 non-fuel mineral production.

Read all the way to the bottom; the data will surprise you.

Non-Fuel Minerals: USGS Methodology

A wide variety of minerals can be classified as “non-fuel”, including precious metals, base metals, industrial minerals, and materials used for construction.

Non-fuel minerals are those not used for fuel, such as oil, natural gas and coal. Once non-fuel minerals are used up, there is no replacing them. However, many can be recycled continuously.

The USGS tracked both refinery and mine production of these various minerals. This means that some minerals are the essential ingredients for others on the list. For example, iron ore is critical for steel production, and bauxite ore gets refined into aluminum.

Top 10 Minerals and Metals by Production

Sand and gravel are at the top of the list of non-fuel mineral production.

As these materials are the basic components for the manufacturing of concrete, roads, and buildings, it’s not surprising they take the lead.

RankMetal/Mineral2019 Production (millions of metric tons)
#1Sand and Gravel50,000
#2Cement4,100
#3Iron and Steel3,200
#4Iron Ore2,500
#5Bauxite500
#6Lime430
#7Salt293
#8Phosphate Rock240
#9Nitrogen150
#10Gypsum140

These materials fertilize the food we eat, and they also form the structures we live in and the roads we drive on. They are the bones of the global economy.

Let’s dive into some more specific categories covered on the infographic.

Base Metals

While cement, sand, and gravel may be the bones of global infrastructure, base metals are its lifeblood. Their consumption is an important indicator of the overall health of an economy.

Base metals are non-ferrous, meaning they contain no iron. They are often more abundant in nature and sometimes easier to mine, so their prices are generally lower than precious metals.

RankBase Metal2019 Production (millions of metric tons)
#1Aluminum64.0
#2Copper20.0
#3Zinc13.0
#4Lead4.5
#5Nickel2.7
#6Tin0.3

Base metals are also the critical materials that will help to deliver a green and renewable future. The electrification of everything will require vast amounts of base metals to make everything from batteries to solar cells work.

Precious Metals

Gold and precious metals grab the headlines because of their rarity ⁠— and their production shows just how rare they are.

RankPrecious Metal2019 Production (metric tons)
#1Silver27,000
#2Gold3,300
#3Palladium210
#4Platinum180

While metals form the structure and veins of the global economy, ultimately it is humans and animals that make the flesh of the world, driving consumption patterns.

A Material World: A Perspective on Scale

The global economy’s appetite for materials has quadrupled since 1970, faster than the population, which only doubled. On average, each human uses more than 13 metric tons of materials per year.

In 2017, it’s estimated that humans consumed 100.6B metric tons of material in total. Half of the total comprises sand, clay, gravel, and cement used for building, along with the other minerals mined to produce fertilizer. Coal, oil, and gas make up 15% of the total, while metal makes up 10%. The final quarter are plants and trees used for food and fuel.

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Prove Your Metal: Top 10 Strongest Metals on Earth

There are 91 elements that are defined as metals but not all are the same. Here is a breakdown of the top 10 strongest metals and their applications.

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Prove Your Metal: Top 10 Strongest Metals on Earth

The use of metals and the advancement of human civilization have gone hand in hand — and throughout the ages, each metal has proved its worth based on its properties and applications.

Today’s visualization from Viking Steel Structures outlines the 10 strongest metals on Earth and their applications.

What are Metals?

Metals are solid materials that are typically hard, shiny, malleable, and ductile, with good electrical and thermal conductivity. But not all metal is equal, which makes their uses as varied as their individual properties and benefits.

The periodic table below presents a simple view of the relationship between metals, nonmetals, and metalloids, which you can easily identify by color.

The Periodic Table

While 91 of the 118 elements of the periodic table are considered to be metals, only a few of them stand out as the strongest.

What Makes a Metal Strong?

The strength of a metal depends on four properties:

  1. Tensile Strength: How well a metal resists being pulled apart
  2. Compressive Strength: How well a material resists being squashed together
  3. Yield Strength: How well a rod or beam of a particular metal resists bending and permanent damage
  4. Impact Strength: The ability to resist shattering upon impact with another object or surface

Here are the top 10 metals based on these properties.

The Top 10 Strongest Metals

RankType of MetalExample UseAtomic WeightMelting Point
#1TungstenMaking bullets and missiles183.84 u3422°C / 6192 °F
#2 SteelConstruction of railroads, roads, other infrastructure and appliancesn/a1371°C / 2500°F
#3ChromiumManufacturing stainless steel51.96 u1907°C / 3465°F,
#4TitaniumIn the aerospace Industry, as a lightweight material with strength47.87 u1668°C / 3032°F
#5IronUsed to make bridges, electricity, pylons, bicycle chains, cutting tools and rifle barrels55.85 u1536°C / 2800°F
#6Vanadium80% of vanadium is alloyed with iron to make steel shock and corrosion resistance50.942 u1910°C / 3470°F
#7LutetiumUsed as catalysts in petroleum production.174.96 u1663 °C / 3025°F
#8ZirconiumUsed in nuclear power stations.91.22 u1850°C / 3.362°F
#9OsmiumAdded to platinum or indium to make them harder.190.2 u3000°C / 5,400°F
#10TantalumUsed as an alloy due to its high melting point and anti-corrosion.180.94 u3,017°C / 5462°F

Out of the Forge and into Tech: Metals for the Future

While these metals help to forge the modern world, there is a new class of metals that are set to create a new future.

Rare Earth elements (REEs) are a group of metals do not rely on their strength, but instead their importance in applications in new technologies, including those used for green energy.

MetalUses
NeodymiumMagnets containing neodymium are used in green technologies such as the manufacture of wind turbines and hybrid cars.
LanthanumUsed in catalytic converters in cars, enabling them to run at high temperatures
CeriumThis element is used in camera and telescope lenses.
PraseodymiumUsed to create strong metals for use in aircraft engines.
GadoliniumUsed in X-ray and MRI scanning systems, and also in television screens.
Yttrium, terbium, europiumMaking televisions and computer screens and other devices that have visual displays.

If the world is going to move towards a more sustainable and efficient future, metals—both tough and smart—are going to be critical. Each one will serve a particular purpose to build the infrastructure and technology for the next generation.

Our ability to deploy technology with the right materials will test the world’s mettle to meet the challenges of tomorrow—so choose wisely.

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