Astronauts Have Used Bacteria to Extract Useful Metals out of Rocks

Historical past has seen mining as a job that requires lots of heavy equipment and bodily labor.  Pulling beneficial materials out of the bottom has been needed for human progress for 1000’s of years.  That progress has led to an alternate technique of getting these sources out of the Earth or different celestial our bodies. The brand new method depends on a symbiotic life associate that has co-habited with us for millennia – micro organism. A latest experiment performed by ESA’s Biorock investigation crew reveals that this course of – referred to as “biomining” – could be the best strategy to gather some supplies in house.

The brand new analysis wasn’t the primary space-based Biorock experiment.  In 2019, the crew confirmed that it might extract uncommon Earth components (REEs) utilizing a biofilm hooked up to basalt, a sort of igneous rock that can also be current on each Mars and the Moon.  REEs, although discovered virtually in every single place on Earth, are solely current at minuscule ranges.  Mining them is prohibitively costly utilizing conventional strategies for many areas, although they’re extensively utilized in numerous industrial processes and excessive expertise merchandise.  

Anton Petrov describing the method of biomining.
Credit score – Anton Petrov YouTube Channel

REEs weren’t the one materials of curiosity for the Biorock experiment, although.  Though not a uncommon Earth ingredient itself, vanadium can also be extensively utilized in industrial processes, together with strengthening metal, making superconducting gadgets, and batteries.  Knowledge on the gathering of vanadium was the point of interest of the brand new paper, however that knowledge was collected concurrently with the unique REE knowledge.

Three several types of micro organism have been used within the examine – Sphingomonas desiccabilis, Bacillus subtilis, and Cupriavidus metallidurans.  Astronauts fed them a form of rock substrate referred to as R2A, a recognized progress medium for all three sorts of micro organism.  As a substitute of crushing the basalt, as would almost definitely be carried out in large-scale bioreactors, the experimenters took skinny slices of basalt collected from a quarry in Iceland that’s remarkably just like the basalts discovered on the Moon and Mars.   

NASA video describing the biomining venture.
Credit score – NASA Johnson YouTube Channel

After flight preparation and touchdown on the ISS, astronauts launched the samples to a KUBIK incubator. Two of the experimental containers started spinning to simulate Martian and Lunar gravity.  A 3rd container was left stationary on the house station, whereas one other container resided as a management at NASA’s Ames Analysis Middle.  Moreover, the researchers positioned “sterile” chambers with no micro organism launched into them at each areas and all gravity ranges.  These can be used as “controls” of the experiment to see how a lot vanadium was extracted from the basalt just by the presence of the micro organism.

Initially, the crew thought the variations in gravity would make an enormous distinction within the effectiveness of the micro organism at amassing vanadium.  Gravity has a vital impact on two fluid dynamics processes – sedimentation and convection – impacting how a lot publicity the micro organism must the substrate materials.

Picture of the BioRock experiment chambers earlier than they have been flown to the ISS.
Credit score – ESA

However to their shock, gravity appeared to have virtually no influence on the effectiveness of the micro organism.  The samples with Sphingomonas desiccabilis and Bacillus subtilis have been way more efficient than their sterile controls, producing on common 184% and 283% extra vanadium on common throughout all three gravity ranges.

One potential rationalization for this lack of gravitational impact is mundane however important – the size of the experiment itself (21 days) could have allowed the microbes to get as extremely concentrated as they’d have been capable of.  Shorter progress intervals would possibly present that sedimentation and convection have extra of an influence on the microbe’s capacity to entry materials in the event that they aren’t totally saturating the media but.

Astronaut Luca Parmitano put in the BioRock experiment on the ISS.
Credit score – NASA

Both method, these Biorock experiments present the viability of utilizing biomining methods in house, a minimum of at a small scale.  Scaling as much as the economic processes required to mine the Moon or an asteroid economically can be a terrific leap ahead, however, as with a lot science and engineering, it should require extra analysis earlier than any course of may be confirmed efficient.  However possibly sometime there will probably be ships with large floating vats of microbes busily chewing away on the rocks collected from an asteroid.

Study Extra:
NASA – Researchers Successfully Biomine Vanadium Aboard the Space Station
Frontiers in Microbiology – Microbially-Enhanced Vanadium Mining and Bioremediation Under Micro- and Mars Gravity on the International Space Station
SlashGear – NASA has biomined vanadium on the ISS using microbes
UT – Metal-Eating Bacteria Could Have Left their “Fingerprints” on Mars, Proving it Once Hosted Life

Lead Picture:
Fluorescence microscopy image of a Spingomonas desiccabilis biofilm rising on basalt earlier than it was launched into house.
Credit score – ESA | Astronauts Have Used Micro organism to Extract Helpful Metals out of Rocks


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