Ideon Technologies digs up $16M Series A to use particle physics to find critical minerals

Car companies and battery manufacturers have scrambled over the last few years to secure critical minerals supplies, a race that’s only gotten more intense as consumers snap up every EV that comes off the production line.

Demand is so high that the International Energy Agency believes the critical minerals market will grow sevenfold by the end of the decade. Mining companies have been moving as quickly as possible to validate new reserves and bring them online, but prospecting is a laborious and time-consuming task.

There’s an easier way, though. Startup Ideon Technologies, fresh off a $16 million Series A round led by Playground Global that closed last week, has a pretty far-out way to simplify the search for critical minerals. You could say it’s way out there. Like outer space out there.

The startup’s technology promises to significantly slash some of the time and expense of mineral exploration while also allowing mining companies to be more targeted in their extraction efforts.

“In case studies, we have demonstrated a 10x reduction in drilling. And so economically, that makes a ton of sense for the mining company,” Gary Agnew, co-founder and CEO of British Columbia-based Ideon, told TechCrunch. The startup is already working with large mining companies like Glencore and Vale, and Agnew said his company will be using the Series A funding to expand the team to build its software stack and further refine its proprietary detectors.

Those detectors are one of Ideon’s key technologies, and they work by listening for the subtle changes that occur when subatomic particles known as muons zip through the Earth. Muons are formed when cosmic rays from outer space collide with particles in the upper atmosphere. They then shatter into a shower of subatomic particles, some of which quickly decay into muons. It may sound exotic, but it’s an occurrence that happens so frequently that at least one muon is passing through your head this very second.

Physicists have known about muons since the 1930s, and they started using muon detectors to probe the Earth’s crust starting in the 1950s. Most famously, in 2017, archaeologists using muon tomography discovered a massive chamber in the Great Pyramid of Giza. The field only recently came into its own, though, following simultaneous advances in AI, cloud computing and semiconductors, Agnew said.

Ten years ago, “the enabling technologies that allow us to deal with very high-volume datasets and be able to process at speed, those technologies just weren’t available on the commercial market,” he said.

Advances in electronics manufacturing have made the hardware side commercially viable, too. “We’ve just completed a 50x miniaturization of the sensor from what was the size and weight of a small car to one that now fits in a borehole the diameter of your coffee cup,” Agnew said. That makes drilling a much cheaper prospect.

Muon tomography relies on the fact that muons lose energy as they pass through matter. Eventually, they lose so much energy that they decay into electrons and neutrinos. The denser the material, the more quickly muons slow and decay. In the case of mineral exploration, detectors above and below ground create “before” and “after” images that allow sophisticated software to determine where different minerals are likely located.

Currently, after completing some initial surveys, mining companies drill test holes over many square kilometers to determine where different minerals are located, what Agnew describes as a “hit and miss” process. To get a similar picture of a deposit using Ideon’s technology, Agnew said that they only have to drill a couple of holes and place three to five detectors in each hole. That’s enough to cover a square kilometer of ground.

The company then takes the data and runs it through its software stack. Ideon’s muon tomography models are based on fundamental work done by the physics community that have been refined over the years as the company has gathered more data on different types of mineral deposits.

Ideon’s genesis can be traced to a moment in the mid-2000s when a geophysicist working for a Canadian mining company stumbled upon a research paper describing the use of muon tomography to map the inside of volcanoes. Armed with that paper, he approached TRIUMF, Canada’s national particle accelerator and asked if the technique could be applied to mining.

“That really then kicked off an internal research desktop exercise to see if there was any viability,” Agnew said. “And here we are, way more than 10 years later, having gone through extensive research product development trials with major mining companies over the last decade that really allowed us to productize the science and be able to solve problems in the real world with particle physics. Who would have thought?”