As the global demand for metals continues to grow year over year, the need for intensive mining is showing no signs of slowing down. In fact, some reports project that production of battery metals is expected to increase by 500% by 2050. This unprecedented demand is also being met by a two-fold supply problem; the slow speed of new mining operations coming on-line and the general problem of world-wide low ore grades that has surfaced over the last few decades.
The global market needs to grapple with these problems and producers need to find ways to extract metals quickly and cheaply while still adhering to environmental, social, and governance (ESG) responsibilities which have become critical guiding principles of late. One burgeoning area of technology that is potentially valuable in solving some of these issues is biotechnology.
Generally speaking, biotechnology involves the use of processes that are facilitated by cells or their components to achieve a specific end-goal. For the mining sector, biotechnologies have been proposed or established for a range of applications, but most notably the pre-treatment (bio-oxidation) with microbes of refractory gold- or copper-bearing materials prior to cyanidation, and the use of microbial surfactants to extract high mineral yields from low-quality ores.
In fact, variations of the former bioprocess have enjoyed commercial success since the 1960s. In situ bioleaching, for example, was used in Canada in the 1970s to recover uranium from deep mines, and at the Denison mine alone, an estimated 300 tonnes of additional uranium were extracted after the main phase of mining using bioleaching.
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