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MEI Online: Biotechnology: Latest News: August 4th 2003


Click for more info on Biomining '21


:: Copper extraction by microbes

The potential for modern large scale commercial use of bacteria to leach copper is demonstrated by a project on the drawing boards for the giant Escondida copper mine in northern Chile (managed and 57.5 per cent owned by BHP Billiton: Rio Tinto's interest is 30 per cent).

Its purpose would be to recover copper from sulphide mineralization that would otherwise be left on waste dumps. Escondida has an enormous inventory of that sort of mineralization, amounting to about 2.3 billion tonnes at the latest reckoning. The average copper content is about 0.55 per cent - not particularly low by the standards of some copper mines, but below Escondida's economic grade for recovering the copper into sulphide concentrates.

While the project is currently at an advanced stage of study and design, a decision to proceed is at least a year away and will be dependent on environmental approvals and an improved outlook for the copper market. If it goes ahead its scale and sophistication would make Escondida a world leader in bioleaching of copper.


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