Development and application of biotechnologies in the metal mining industry
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Metal mining faces a number of significant economic and environmental challenges in the twenty-first century for which established and emerging biotechnologies may, at least in part, provide the answers. Bioprocessing of mineral ores and concentrates is already used in variously engineered formats to extract base (e.g., copper, cobalt, and nickel) and precious (gold and silver) metals in mines throughout the world, though it remains a niche technology. However, current projections of an increasing future need to use low-grade primary metal ores, to reprocess mine wastes, and to develop in situ leaching technologies to extract metals from deep-buried ore bodies, all of which are economically more amenable to bioprocessing than conventional approaches (e.g., pyrometallurgy), would suggest that biomining will become more extensively utilized in the future. Recent research has also shown that bioleaching could be used to process a far wider range of metal ores (e.g., oxidized ores) than has previously been the case. Biotechnologies are also being developed to control mine-related pollution, including securing mine wastes (rocks and tailings) by using “ecological engineering” approaches, and also to remediate and recover metals from waste waters, such as acid mine drainage. This article reviews the current status of biotechnologies within the mining sector and considers how these may be developed and applied in future years.
KeywordsAcidophiles Biomining Biotechnology Metals Mining Pollution Recycling Reprocessing Sulfidogenesis
The author wishes to acknowledge the insights provide by numerous colleagues in the biohydrometallurgical community and to current and past members of the Bangor Acidophile Research Team. He also wishes to acknowledge financial support from the European Union in the “BioMinE” (FP6 contract NMP1-CT-500329-1) and ProMine (FP7 contract NMP-2008-LARGE-2: #228559) projects.
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