Mining based in biotechnology: an alliance for a sustainable development

-The Centre for Biotechnology and Bioengineering (CeBiB) at the University of Chile, in a conjoint research project with the company EcoMetales, are looking to the Atacama Desert in the quest for new technologies to stabilize impurities.

During his long career as researcher, professor Juan Asenjo, Chilean National Science Award and director of the Centre for Biotechnology and Bioengineering (CeBiB) at the University of Chile, has explored the most diverse ecosystems -from the Atacama Desert to the Antarctic- looking for microorganisms that live in those places.

It was thought that the conditions of the Atacama Desert made life impossible to thrive. “Today we know that there are complex ecosystems with different microorganisms that not only live, but prosper there, despite the high UV radiation and the absence of water, and in the presence of high concentrations of chemicals toxic for human beings, but not for these extremophiles”, Asenjo explains.

Now, an alliance between the compay EcoMetales and CeBiB will allow them to study bacteria from extreme ecosystems, in the quest for new sustainable applications in the mining industry.

Challenges in mining

A major challenge the mining industry is facing today is a future scenario of lower grade copper ores and high presence of arsenic, a situation that will increase the presence of this impurity in waste and products.

EcoMetales, a subsidiary of Codelco, has the bigger plant in the world for the leaching of flue dust and the stabilization of arsenic in the form of scorodite, the most stable technology to dispose of this impurity according to state-of-art. To do this, EcoMetales uses a technology developed and patented in Chile by the company itself.

Iván Valenzuela, General Manager of EcoMetales, states: “The future of mining will have to include new and better technologies to truly fulfill the environmental and social expectations in waste treatment and disposal”.

And, although the EcoMetales system already achieves this, Valenzuela adds that the real challenge is going one step forward, looking for new applications -as the one the company and CeBiB will study- to minimize the waste production through more efficient bioprocesses.

 

Bacteria and copper

CeBiB and EcoMetales have a conjoint project to analyze the improvement of the process of arsenic stabilization through biotechnological applications and they are looking for answers in the Atacama Desert.

According to Cristina Dorador, principal researcher at CeBiB in the University of Antofagasta, “there are basal studies that describe bacteria with an efficiency rate for acumulating arsenic over than 80% and 90%, depending on the specimen analyzed”.

The researchers, by using biotechnology, will try to isolate, grow and prepare bacteria to live in the same conditions of one of the process points in the EcoMetales’ plant. The idea is to use the bacteria in the solutions containing arsenic in the plant or in the pulps obtained directly from the flue dust.

The project will use bacteria without genetics modification: “The goal is to use native microorganisms that are naturally adapted to extreme conditions”, Dorador concludes.