Bacteria feeding on metals promise to reduce mineral pollution in Chile

Antofagasta-based scientist is experimenting with metal-eating bacteria to reduce pollution caused by Chile’s mining industry. These organisms, called “extremophiles”, are known to be buried in the most difficult conditions of survival.

Chile is the world’s largest producer of copper, with metallurgy accounting for around 15% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). There are recycling practices for metal objects there, but this does not cover all artifacts: Compactor trucks, for example, can store up to 50 tonnes of rock, but their machinery is not recyclable and vehicles are usually abandoned in the Atacama Desert.

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Biotechnologist Nadac Reales, holding a container containing the bacteria ” leptospirilleWhich feeds on metals and survives in inhospitable environments (Image: Rudanac Biotec / Publishing)

Biotechnologist Nadac Reales, however, has experimented with extremophile organisms – an idea she has been developing since college, when she used a bacteria that feeds on metals for academic work on improving copper mining. .

“I realized that there are several demands in the mining industry, such as scrap metal waste,” he told AFP. At the agency, the specialist – who now owns her own business, Rudanac Biotec – said she was conducting tests with a bacteria called ” leptospirilleWhich focuses on the oxidation of iron.

“This bacterium lives in a very acidic environment, practically insensitive to high concentrations of metals,” Reales said. “In the beginning, it took two months to disintegrate a nail. “Leptospirillum” was extracted from geysers in the Tatio region, 4.2 thousand kilometers above sea level and 350 kilometers from Antofagasta.

However, Reales found that in times of famine, bacteria had to adapt and find new ways to eat. After two years of testing, the study results revealed a higher average rate at which bacteria devoured iron – the same nail process was repeated, and the artifact was consumed in just three days.

“Leptospirillum” does not present any risk to humans or nature, minimizing the impact of its use on this objective: “we have always seen a lot of potential in this project which has already undergone a major laboratory test”, said Drina Vejar, member of a four-person team of microbiologists who work with Reales. “It is extremely necessary, at this time, that we have a plan for a more sustainable development, especially in these cities full of polluting industries. “

Despite financial support from the Chilean federal government, Reales still says his startup needs more investment to conduct field tests, assessing the bacteria’s ability for practical applications. According to her, the objective is now to test whether “Leptospirillum” can “eat” the bucket of a concrete mixer (the concrete mixer truck in the construction industry) or a garbage truck compactor.

Faced with a possible private sector investment in the project, companies in the sector will benefit immediately. After the bacteria that feed on metals have finished their ‘meal’, only a liquid compound remains which, in addition to not harming humans or nature, can be used by businesses in the world. ‘faster and more sustainable extraction of copper, through a process called “hydrometallurgy”.

Reales recently submitted documentation for a patent for its technology, and it hopes the process, if it passes practical tests, will be adopted in the next few years.

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