Thursday, July 27, 2006

Using microbes to mine copper.

The Escondida copper mine in Chile- the worlds largest copper mine. Photo BHP Billiton Group from here.

Thomas Barton has recently written a great book - The Australian Miracle: An Innovative Nation Revisited (Picador 2006) - which has many interesting things to say about commercial and technological innovation in Australia.

It has an interesting discussion of the use of bacteria to extract copper in the following passage (pages 223-4):

For many years, people in Australia have talked about the need to shift from an economy based on the production of physical goods to an economy based on the production of knowledge. This idea is so commonplace that it is difficult to imagine anyone interested in Australian technological and economic competitiveness not taking it up.

What does it mean, though? When most people hear this recommendation, they usually imagine it means that Australia needs to shift out of mining, agriculture and other traditional sources of wealth, and into design, computer programming, biotechnology and the arts.

In actuality, though, what the shift might imply is quite the opposite.

One of Australia's biggest biotechnology companies is now BHP Billiton, the mining giant. Little known to the outside world, the company has a biotech laboratory with around eighty employees whose main job is to develop the use of bacteria for minerals leaching. The group specialises in identifying bugs in hot springs and other extreme environments, and then breeds them up so that they become efficient at breaking down intractable ores. Furthermore, unlike a good number of other biotech companies, BHP Billiton is actually putting its products to work.

As part of a one-billion-dollar exercise at Escondida in Chile - the world's largest copper mine - the company is currently bioleaching a heap of ore that stretches across nine square kilometres. Biomining, for the first time in human history, is a reality.

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1 Comments:

Anonymous microbial cells said...

Did anyone catch the TV news item saying that the mineworkers are on strike at the Chian copper mine?!

August 21, 2006 9:10 am  

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