Recent experiments aboard the International Space Station have shown that some microbes can harvest valuable rare-earth elements from rocks, even when exposed to microgravity conditions. The unexpected finding shows how microbes could boost our ability to live and work in space.
On Earth, some microscopic organisms have shown their worth as effective miners, extracting rare-earth elements (REEs) from rocks. New experimental evidence published today in Nature Communications shows that, when it comes to leaching REEs from rocks, at least one strain of bacteria is largely unaffected by microgravity and low-gravity conditions.
This is potentially good news for future space explorers, as biomining microbes could provide a means for acquiring REEs while in space, on the Moon, or on Mars.
REEs are vitally important for the manufacturing of commercial electronic components (like those found in your smartphone) and the production of alloys. The problem with REEs, aside from their tricky names (e.g. lanthanum, cerium, neodymium, yttrium, praseodymium, just to name a few), isn’t so much that they’re rare as they’re notoriously difficult to mine and extract, making them a serious pain in the arse.
In addition to the increased mining and refining costs, the harvesting of these elements is both ecologically and environmentally unfriendly, and the insatiable quest to obtain them often results in civil strife, which is why they’re often referred to as “conflict minerals.”
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