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Hiking in Tibet a few years ago, Amanda Hall encountered a group of monks who, she was surprised to note, were all clutching mobile phones. The experience proved to be an epiphany for the geophysicist, then working in the oil and gas sector. “I realised that [the need for] lithium is everywhere,” she told me, referring to the rare mineral that phone batteries need to function. “So I started asking where it could come from.”

Returning home to Canada, Hall, now 49, decided to look for answers. So in 2018 she founded a company called Summit Nanotech, which unlocks lithium from brine using a proprietary technology that the company claims produces fewer carbon emissions and inflicts less environmental damage than traditional methods of extraction. Backed by investors including BHP and Temasek, the group is now offering its services in countries such as Chile, the world’s second-largest producer, in a bid to expand the lithium supply chain.

On one level, this is a classic tale of entrepreneurial zeal. But it is also a sign of our changing times. For one thing, Hall is an example of women succeeding in sectors once almost entirely male-dominated. “I used to think that being a woman was a curse,” she says. “But now I see it as a blessing, since investors like it.” Her story also highlights a broader point about our 21st-century economy: “old-fashioned” industries such as mining and engineering matter enormously, even as we hurtle into a cyber age.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. However, as the Canadian scientist Vaclav Smil points out in his book How the World Really Works, most people “misunderstand the fundamental workings of the modern world”. Policymakers and voters tend to be ill-informed about science and engineering innovations, and the revolutions in food production and energy supplies that have taken place as a result of our use, and misuse, of resources such as fossil fuels. That ignorance of industry, Smil adds, has also led to a “comprehension deficit” about what will be required to decarbonise our systems.

These shortcomings partly reflect a lack of investment in scientific education. Compared to China, many countries invest woefully little in this area. But there is also a subtle cultural factor at work. Today, our lives feel increasingly disembodied because we spend so much time online, making it easy to ignore “real-world” engineering processes. When teens or the media talk about entrepreneurship, they often focus on digital technologies, social media apps or consumer services. Mining seems pretty dull stuff compared to innovations such as ChatGPT or the digital geniuses who hog the headlines.

Yet the irony of this dash to live on digital devices is that it has created a dire need for metals, rare earth minerals and other commodities, ranging from sodium to nickel to lithium. Who controls those supply chains, and whether they are in private or public hands, is therefore critical. As is the question of whether entrepreneurs will jump in to create extraction processes that are large-scale, low-cost and green.

Last week Elon Musk of the Tesla electric vehicle group, a big user of lithium, warned of an urgent need for more western start-ups to counter our reliance on Chinese supplies of the mineral. Although lithium can be mined in many parts of the world, the processing capability takes place mainly in China. “Instead of making a picture-sharing app, please refine lithium,” he urged would-be entrepreneurs. “Mining and refining, heavy industry, come on!”

The US and Canadian governments are among those urging private sector players to get involved. But one problem with trying to launch heavy industry start-ups is that they require far more capital than designing an app. They also have to contend with complex regulatory and geopolitical challenges. Last week, Chile’s leftwing government shocked the commodities world by declaring that it plans to nationalise its lithium mines.

Then there is the cultural challenge gap: although tech entrepreneurs such as Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs have become household names, most people would be stumped if you asked them to name an industrial entrepreneur.

So I am curious to watch the progress of Hall’s lithium venture, alongside the dozens of other start-ups quietly moving into this field. Hall is confident, pointing out that since she offers an extraction service, rather than actually owning a mine, she can work with a private group or a government, whatever happens in places such as Chile.

The question for western governments is how many other entrepreneurs they have waiting in the wings. “Getting your hands and your boots dirty is so important — we are bringing new technology into that space,” Hall says. Let’s hope others are listening.

Follow Gillian on Twitter @gilliantett and email her at gillian.tett@ft.com

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