Photo: Profimedia Images

A young researcher has found a way to get rid of metals that cannot be recycled. A nail was disintegrated in three days

Hungry microorganisms, able to survive in extreme conditions, managed to “eat” a nail in three days in an experiment conducted in Chile. A young researcher from this country hopes to use these “metal-eating bacteria” to make mining less polluting, reports AFP.

In his laboratory, located in an industrial area of ​​Antofagasta (north), 1,100 kilometers from Santiago, Nadac Reales, a 33-year-old biologist, has been conducting research on extremophiles since 2017, organisms that live in extreme conditions.

During her first internships in mining companies, at the end of her university studies, Nadac Reales realized that “there are needs in the mining industry, especially regarding the future of scrap metal,” Rudanac Biotec’s director told AFP. Because only some equipment used to extract minerals can be recycled in smelters. Those that cannot be recycled are abandoned in the Atacama Desert, where much of Chile’s mining industry is concentrated and releases heavy metals that pollute the environment.

Nadac Reales has focused her research on bacteria in the Leptospirillum family, whose energy needed for their life process comes mainly from the oxidation of ferrous elements. The researcher collects them from the Tatio geysers, 4,200 meters above sea level and about 350 kilometers from Antofagasta.

This type of bacterium “lives in an acidic environment and is strongly affected by the relatively high concentrations of most metals,” she told AFP.

“Initially, it took the bacteria two months to disintegrate the nail. Later, because they were not given much food, they had to eat in one way or another, so it was a process of adaptation “, said the researcher.

At the end of this process, which lasted two years, the bacteria “biodegraded the nail in three days”, leaving behind only a soluble matter, according to Agerpres.

Nadac Reales, a Chilean researcher specializing in biology. 
Photo: nadacreales / Instagram

Scientists have thus succeeded in determining the optimal conditions for the growth of these microorganisms and adapting them to their task.

The cost of waste disposal

After that, the bacteria must now attack “a medium-sized iron beam or dump truck” used in the truck.

“Chemical and microbiological tests have been performed to ensure that these bacteria do not harm” human health and that the residual solution they generate is not polluting, the researcher assured.

Mining contributes almost 15% to Chile’s gross domestic product (GDP), but it is also highly polluting, and mining companies pay dearly for the disposal of the waste they produce, which is required by Chilean law.

Therefore, mining companies are very interested in this research. But if Rudanac Biotec has benefited from the support of acceleration funds for start-ups in the Chilean state, the young company is currently seeking funding for large-scale tests.

“After conducting laboratory and semi-pilot tests, we must now be able to validate this technology on a real scale and be able to biodegrade heavy metal structures, such as these dump trucks,” the researcher explained.

All the more so as the elimination of non-recyclable metals could then lead to the emergence of a more sustainable solution in copper extraction processes, with Chile being the world’s largest producer of this metal.

“The bucket does not contain copper, but after biodegradation, the product generated”, namely a liquid, reddish solution, “allows to improve the extraction of copper” in the treatment process that separates the various metals contained in an ore, she explained.

Greener mining thus becomes “quite feasible,” said Nadac Reales, who recently filed for an international patent, relying on this promising biotechnology.

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