Earth-X tech project digs deep to make mining greener

B.C.'s Ideon Technologies leads the consortium-based project, which relies on cosmic-ray muon tomography.

Credit: Ideon Technologies. Gary Agnew, co-founder and CEO (left); Doug Schouten, CTO; and Don Furseth, co-founder and director

B.C.’s Ideon Technologies is leading the consortium-based effort, which relies on cosmic-ray muon tomography

The worldwide shift toward renewable energy keeps accelerating, but do you know how much metal and minerals well need to go green?

Well, with most of Earth’s near-surface mining deposits already in use, the production of copper, nickel, zinc and other critical raw materials to fuel the transition would need to increase by 500 percent over the next two or three decades. That means drilling relentlessly for longer periods, racking up higher costs and damaging the land, all in the hope of tapping into an undiscovered reserve—if you’re thinking of a scene from the movie Holes, you’re not far off. 

Richmond-based mining tech firm Ideon Technologies has joined Canada’s Digital Technology Supercluster to take a consortium-based approach to finding a solution. Ideon leads a new group that also includes Dias Geophysical, Fireweed Zinc, Microsoft Corp., MitacsSFU and global mining giant BHP. Their project, called Earth X-Ray for Low-Impact Mining (Earth-X), aims to develop more efficient mining technologies that can support the switch from fossil fuels to clean energy. 

So what exactly are they doing, and how? The group is building a solution using the natural energy provided by the universe, as Ideon co-founder and CEO Gary Agnew puts it. “That natural energy is in the form of a subatomic particle called muon,” Agnew tells BCBusiness. Using cosmic-ray muon tomography, Earth-X creates models of anomalies—such as dense areas indicating potential mineral reserves—up to a kilometre underground.  

“Much like medical imaging like X-rays and CT scans have enabled keyhole surgery in the human body, we see the same opportunity for our technology to enable a future of minimally invasive mining,” Agnew said in a release. “Rather than a lot of ‘hit-and-miss’ drilling that leaves a scar on the landscape, this new approach can accurately locate subsurface deposits and map them in 3D with much less environmental impact.” 

Over the past decade, research and development advancing muon tech was carried out locally by Ideon and TRIUMF, the national particle physics laboratory based at UBC. “The Earth-X project actually enables us to productize that solution but also offer new drone-based solutions in addition to the ability to X-ray under the Earth’s surface,” Agnew explains. “We’re looking at the Earth from beneath and looking at the Earth from above, and together that’s going to give us that highest-resolution imaging to help mining companies not just target efficiently but to optimize the process of extracting minerals.” 

READ MORE: How the B.C. mining industry can transform itself into a global leader in sustainability—and what’s stopping it 

The muon solution has already arrived at a BHP site in Australia. Deploying this technology throughout the mining industry could mean more discoveries with less drilling, lower greenhouse gas emissions and reduced scarring of the landscape. For First Nations communities, early access to Earth-X could enable economic opportunities with relatively low environmental impact.

The project is good for the province, too. “We’re a B.C. company, and we were five or six people when we started talking to the Supercluster,” Agnew says. “We’re over 20 now, and we’re going to be 40 to 60 people in a heartbeat. We’re manufacturing hardware, we’re bringing state-of-the-art talent to the province—it’s a tremendous opportunity to be a part of.”