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Replacing toxic chemicals

Using bacteria to extract valuable minerals from ore is showing the potential to replace toxic chemicals such as cyanide in the mining industry.

Toxic byproducts from mining and ore processing continue to plague the mining industry – and the environment. Every year large volumes of heavy metals and toxic chemicals leach into soil, groundwater and rivers from mining company operations.
Scientists at Flinders University in South Australia are developing a line-up of lab-based experiments to extract valuable minerals from ore using environmentally friendly microbes commonly found on mine locations.
Associate professor Sarah Harmer says the next stage of the new technique called bio-flotation would involve scaling up to larger and more complicated experiments.
“We’re making real progress in finding better ways to more sustainably separate valuable ores such as copper, iron, lead and zinc.
“At the moment we’re mixing together pure minerals of known quantities and purity and studying the effects.”
Making the technology cost effective on a large scale for commercial use in the mining industry would be crucial, she says.
“That’s what has really slowed the adoption of using microbes and different types of bacteria for minerals processing. They’ve only been done on a small scale in the past due to the cost.
“It’s what mining companies consider blue sky research so we need to upscale a little bit more before we actually do it together and that’s the next step.
“This has the potential to be scaled up to one day replace toxic chemicals such as cyanide and xanthates now used to separate the minerals from ore in the early froth flotation phase of processing.” By Andrew Spence.

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