American start-up Aether said on Wednesday it has raised $49 million to scale its AI and machine learning-based platform aimed at helping miners extract critical metals in a more resource-efficient and sustainable manner.
The San Francisco-based company said that while it intends to focus first on lithium extraction, its technology can help mine rare earth metals, titanium, and other critical minerals from previously-inaccessible reserves.
“Nature invented nano-scale machinery called proteins that can move and rearrange atoms. At Aether, we’re engineering these proteins to go beyond what nature intended,” Pavle Jeremic, founder and chief executive said in the statement.
The platform combines high-throughput robotics, machine learning, and synthetic biology to map millions of enzyme-reaction combinations.
Jeremic said the technology is able to engineer entirely new classes of nanoscale machines using protein building blocks called molecular assemblers, which can synthesize new products with greater strength, flexibility, and chemical resistance. Aether’s platform can be used in different fields, including the defence industry. The company’s technology, for example, can create new products to increase the effectiveness and elasticity of ballistic materials.
In mining, Aether’s molecular assemblers can be introduced to a brine where they bond only to specified metal atoms, regardless of the concentration, releasing the element into a new solution.
The company claims the resulting emulsion would be highly concentrated with atoms of the specified element and void of other contaminants and unwanted materials.
Aether says its extraction process also eliminates the need for costly infrastructure that takes years to build, relying instead on portable, modular, shipping containers where the extraction and refinery occurs.
Current extraction techniques, including open-pit mining or evaporation ponds, require lithium concentration to be high enough for the operation to be commercially viable – while also requiring vast amounts of land and water.
By utilizing molecular assemblers, Aether says its technology can extract lithium from previously untapped sources and using 50,000x less water than the amounts required in evaporation ponds, largely present in South America’s Lithium Triangle.
Aether said it will initially focus its lithium extraction efforts in the southern, middle portions of the US, including Oklahoma and Arkansas, where subterranean lithium exists in sizeable amounts, but at low concentrations.
Texas will also be a key area of focus given the company’s ability to extract lithium from oil and gas wastewater byproducts, as well as capped oil wells, it said.