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MEI Online: Biotechnology: Latest News: October 14th 2010


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:: Extreme Bugs could give Australia’s Mining Industry an Efficiency Boost

Extremophilic bacteria, bugs that live in the harshest environments on the planet, have expanded our understanding of where life can exist. However, these bugs can also play a valuable role in making mining more efficient and sustainable. Research by Parker Cooperative Research Centre for Integrated Hydrometallurgy Solutions PhD student Carla Zammit (Curtin University) has discovered that bacteria living in the highly acidic and saline drains of Western Australia can play an important role in expanding the use of biomining to regions that were previously limited by saline process waters.

“In a process known as biomining, bacteria can act as biocatalysts that break down low-grade sulphide ores containing economic quantities of metals," Carla explained. “Biomining has big advantages over traditional ore extraction techniques; it has lower set-up, operational and maintenance costs, zero smelter emissions, and the microorganisms used absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide."

About 20 per cent of global copper production is the result of biomining but its uses has been limited in Australia because poor quality and highly saline waters that limit the growth of the bacteria involved in the process. Taking up the challenge, Carla went on a bug search in Australia’s more extreme environments targeting in particular the hypersaline and acidic lakes of Western Australia where she discovered two species of bacteria right for the job living in a saline drain.

“The bacteria I discovered have extremely unique properties which make them potentially very useful for the global biomining industry. They are as efficient as the bacteria currently used by industry, but are more resilient to some of the extreme environmental conditions, such as high salinity," Carla said.

“I chose these extremophiles because of their superior ability to break down iron, a trait used to initially gauge a microorganism’s biomining potential." Carla has now completed her PhD studies but the Parker Centre will continue to test the bacteria’s unique properties, which have already attracted interest from the mining industry.

The Parker Centre is a Cooperative Research Centre comprising four Core Research Participants (CSIRO Minerals, Curtin University of Technology, Murdoch University and the University of Queensland), and 22 Industry Participants from the minerals industry.




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