ARC Centre of Excellence in Synthetic Biology

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Rio Tinto Fellowship explores metal recovery from mining

18, May 2023

Rio Tinto Fellowship explores metal recovery from mining

Synthetic biology’s ability to sustainably recovery metals from mining waste is the focus of a new Rio Tinto Fellowship and partnership with the ARC Centre of Excellence in Synthetic Biology.

Dr Denys Villa Gomez of the University of Queensland joins the Centre as an Associate Investigator as part of the $720,000, three-year research project.

As global demand for precious metals for smart phones , green energy and electric vehicles escalates, so does the amount of waste.  More than 200 000 tonnes of nickel alone is mined in Australia alone, generating massive amounts of mine waste and wastewater.

‘These waters have been reported to contain relevant concentrations of nickel and the ore-associated cobalt,’ says Dr Villa Gomez, who will work with long-time collaborator, Chief Investigator Associate Professor Esteban Marcellin. ‘This secondary stream is attractive for nickel and cobalt recovery, which are crucial resources to key industrial sectors worldwide.

‘Over the past decade, bio-based methods have proven their efficiency in recovering metals from diluted waste streams through solubilisation or immobilisation of metals.

‘While biological methods are considered a much “greener” alternative to traditional methods, the speed and efficiency at which the processes are carried out is not yet industrially competitive.

‘I will provide sustainable treatment processes for better mine-closure planning. By incorporating circular economy practices for maximising the recovery of resources, the amount of resources sent to tailing dams will be reduced and treatment costs and pollution problems will be reduced. ‘

Recovery of gallium from red mud is another aspect of the research. Massive deposits of this valuable mineral are contained in red mud residues in Australia and a more energy efficient means of extraction is required.

Biomining has successfully recovered 20% of the world’s copper and 5% of the world’s gold over the past 40 years. But metal recovery has been limited by metabolic efficiencies when microorganisms are exposed to extreme environments, and to the poor identification of critical metals sequestration mechanisms in microbes. 

Dr Villa Gomez says advances in synthetic biology now make it possible to unravel the candidate genes and proteins that will improve biomining processes.