Science & Technology

Clean energy: How AI can help spot the copper we need

A supply crunch may be on the horizon; artificial intelligence can help discover copper deposits formed along ancient mountain ranges over past 80 million years

By Anshika Ravi
Published: Monday 19 July 2021

Climate crisis is worsening, and there is a growing urgency to head towards net-zero emissions. The world is going to need massive quantities of copper — an essential and highly efficient mineral used in renewable energy systems to generate power from solar, hydroelectric, thermal and wind energy.

But where do we scour the copper? The world may be bound for a supply crunch: Market analysts have estimated that the supply shortfall of copper a year could be as high as 10 million tonnes by 2030 the world doe not build any new mines.

A new report shows the way: Using artifical intelligence to discover copper deposits formed along the ancient mountain ranges over the past 80 million years. The research from the Earthbyte research group, University of Sydney, pointed to a developing software called GPlates that can model Earth in four dimensions to discover these ancient copper deposits.

Why is copper needed

Wind and solar energy as well as batteries offer renewable and clean alternatives. But these clean energy technologies need new material demands.

Copper is an excellent conductor of thermal and electrical energy; the power systems that utilise this metal generate and transmit energy with high efficiency and with minimum environmental impacts.

Use of copper in energy systems, therefore, helps reduce carbon dioxide emissions. It can also be recycled completely many times over without any loss in performance.

The global need for copper, however, could increase by 350 per cent by 2050, according to a 2016 study published in journal Science Direct.

The study underlined that the current reserves could deplete between 2035 and 2045, as wind and solar energy gains more traction and more people shift to electric vehicles.

The International Energy Agency in its report published May 2021 also flagged global supply of copper for accelerated deployment of solar panels, wind turbines and electric vehicles.

What is GPlate technology?

Cooper deposits are locked up in remote locations, including the volcanic mountain chains such as the Andes and the Rocky Mountains.

When tectonic plates converge, one plate slides beneath the other and descends into the Earth’s mantle at rates of 2-8 centimeters a year. The process creates a variety of magmatic rocks (formed through the cooling and solidification of magma or lava) and copper deposits along the edge of the continent. The process is called subduction.

The region of the Earth’s crust where the tectonic plates meet is called the subduction zone. Porphyry copper systems, the most viable source of economic copper, occur along magmatic belts derived in subduction zones. 

The hot magmatic fluid inside the mantle has copper, which, after millions of years of further plate movement, moves closer to the surface and can be extracted.

GPlates software — desktop software that primarily helps understand where copper deposits have formed along the mountain belts — uses machine learning to understand the link between copper deposits and the evolution of the subduction zone.

The branch of artificial intelligence measures how fast the tectonic plates are moving towards each other, how far the plate is from the subduction zone, how much copper there is in the crust, etc.

The study has narrowed down on several candidate regions in the United States, which include central Alaska, southern Nevada, southern California and Arizona, and regions in Mexico, Chile, Peru and Ecuador.

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