As mining companies delve ever deeper into the Earth, new tools — from AI to metal-eating microbes — will guide the way.
IN THE DECADES TO COME, as the easiest-to-mine metal deposits are tapped out, the quest for metals to supply the clean energy transition will force us ever further afield. To more remote and politically unstable places on land and further underground, to the deepest seabed, and perhaps even beyond the limits of the Earth altogether — to the moon, and near-Earth asteroids and comets.
And unless business as usual can change, our future over the shorter term will be to venture into ever deeper, darker, and riskier places, creating new sacrifice zones in the Global South, where most of the best earthly deposits remain.
Where it is technically possible, we will go ever deeper into the Earth’s crust to access metal-rich ores. Many of the biggest open-pit mines of the world — Chuquicamata in northern Chile, Bingham Canyon in Utah, and Grasberg in western New Guinea — have gone as deep as they can safely go.
Beyond one kilometer of depth (0.6 miles), the slopes of an open pit can become increasingly unstable; to tap the deep roots of metal deposits, miners now plumb the depths underground. No other mining operation on Earth yet compares to South Africa’s Mponeng gold mine, the world’s deepest, about 40 miles southwest of Johannesburg.
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