Pioneer mining experiments performed by astronauts in space have shown that in zero gravity microbes can effectively extract elements from rocks. The astronauts on the International Space Station performed these tests. This opens up an array of possibilities for humanity in terms of exploration and settlement of the solar system.
The study, which was published in the “Nature Communications” journal, explains that microorganisms play important roles in natural process such as the cycling elements in the atmosphere and weathering rocks into soils on earth. They are also used in various manufacturing and industrial processes, such as bio mining.
Bio mining bacteria can mobilize the extraction of valuable metals such as gold and copper from rocks. On our planet, these bacteria are generally used to mine rare earth elements (REEs) such as yttrium, scandium and lanthanides. Rare earth elements have useful properties such as luminescence and ferromagnetism, which makes them critical components of computer screens and phones. Additionally, they are also useful in magnet and metal alloy production as well as catalysis.
Despite their many benefits, REEs are expensive to mine and are quickly being exhausted. So, if humankind wants to explore the solar system further and build on other planets and moons, then we need to develop ways of mining these elements undisturbed. The study mentioned above focused on this, looking into whether microbes could extract rare earth elements under different gravitational conditions.
Charles Cockell, from the University of Edinburgh and the lead in the study, along with other researchers, spent 10 years creating small-scale bio mining reactors that could be sent up to the International Space Station. These miniature mining devices were stocked with small basalt pieces and submersed in various bacterial solutions before being launched last year.
In a three-week period, astronauts evaluated three species of bacteria and their bio mining potential under various gravitational conditions, from simulated Mars gravity to microgravity.
Their results demonstrate that Sphingomonas desiccabilis, a bacterium, drained rare earth elements from basalt under all three gravity levels. The other two bacteria species that were tested either showed an incapacity of extracting rare earth metals or decreased efficiency at low gravity. S. desiccabilis can therefore be used to help humans find materials that are crucial for surviving outside of Earth’s atmosphere.
Cockell explains that while it won’t be economically viable to mine these rare earth elements in space and transport them to Earth, space bio mining may possibly support a self-reliant human population in space. Furthermore, the study may help scientists understand how gravity affects the metabolic processes and growth of microbial communities.
Back here on Earth, mining is still seeing a lot of innovation and development. One sector player worthy of mention in this regard is Josemaria Resources Inc. (OTCQB: JOSMF) (TSX: JOSE). The company is currently putting all its energies into making the best use of its own Josemaria gold and copper mining project.
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