New commodity demands, evolving social and environmental mandates, and the expanding use of technology means new challenges for extractors of natural resources. The next generation of geoscientists and engineers will meet these tests through a combination of technical mastery and big-picture analytical thinking.
Natural Resources and the Circular Economy
In a 2020 piece for Renewable Matter, Roberto Gambini, Head of Geothermal Global Technological Line talks about the transition from a so-called linear economy to a circular one. The circular economy bears already familiar hallmarks such as the utilization of renewable sources of energy, a biological cycle where waste is reused, and a technical cycle where raw minerals are recycled.1
According to Gambini, balancing natural capital with socio-economic well-being will require geoscientists capable of broadening their scope.
“The most important skills that general geoscientists will have to develop is the ability to integrate their work within wider contexts that include industrial, social, and architectural aspects,” he explains.1
An oft-cited statistic claims that 65% of children starting grade school today will eventually be employed in jobs that don’t exist yet.1 Geoscience will be no exception to the rule so those looking to keep pace must embrace an attitude of continuous learning.
“In some cases, these professionals may even be non-existent, or in need of a profound transformation,” says Gambini. “This is the case of “Geoscientists”, who played an important role in the so-called linear economy and are destined to play it even in the circular economy, as long as they’re able to innovate.”1
Data, AI, and Machine Learning in Natural Resources
At the forefront of the evolution within the industry are data, artificial intelligence, and machine learning. Traditionally not as prevalent in the arena of mineral extraction as it has been in oil and gas, AI is increasingly being utilized across the board.
“The world is just as dependent on natural resources as it is data resources,” writes Forbes contributor Ron Schmelzer, “so it makes sense to see how the evolving areas of artificial intelligence and machine learning have an impact on the world of mining and natural resource extraction.”2
Data is collected and analyzed to assess the potential value of exploration targets, to monitor safety protocol, to predict machinery maintenance needs, and to minimize environmental impact by establishing optimal pathways for resource extraction.
“Mining and resource extraction companies are looking to robotics, autonomous systems, and AI applications of all sorts to minimize risk, maximize return, and also lessen the environmental impact that mining has on our ecosystem,” says Schmelzer.2
The ability to work with this data will prove an important skill within the industry, in both technical and analytical terms.
Canada and the Lithium Battery
Who’s got 75 million thumbs and an abundance of the natural resources needed for lithium batteries? Canada does! (Thumb total subject to fluctuation) Of course it’s not just technology and extraction methods that evolve, but the natural resources that are in demand as well. With Canada’s auto industry on ever shaky ground, many believe that our nation is well positioned to lead the way in the production of electric cars. If this is to be the case, it will require human as well as natural resources.
“Fortunately, Canada has a competitive advantage in this realm, too: our natural resources and the scientific excellence and manufacturing skills to maximize them,” writes John Best for the Bay Observer. “More specifically, we are the only nation in the western hemisphere with an abundance of cobalt, graphite, lithium and nickel, the minerals needed to make next-generation electric batteries.3
That same article cites dizzying statistics about forecasted growth for the industry.
“The International Energy Agency forecasts that by 2030, production of electric vehicles could reach 43 million units per year with production valued at more than US$567 billion. That is up from 2 million electric vehicles made in 2018. By 2040, the international market for energy storage will attract US$662 billion in investments. The lithium ion battery is at the heart of this evolution.”3
Electric vehicle giant Tesla has committed to sourcing all of the cobalt, needed for the production of lithium batteries, from North America. This could include the utilization of major reserves found in Canada’s Northwest Territories.4
While markets for specific natural resources are impossible to guarantee, what’s certain is that those extracting that resource will face economic, social and regulatory pressure to do so efficiently.
“The future of electric vehicle battery production needs to meet the demands of environmentally conscious consumers – whether that is through enhanced traceability over materials, or the commercialisation of new battery technology with R&D that reduces dependency on exotic materials, says Dr. Luca Castignani in a recent interview with Engineer Live.”5
The natural resources sector will meet these challenges because it will have to. Pivotal to the success of companies within the sector will be the hiring and development of top tier engineers and geo-scientists who are ready to evolve.