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MEI Online: Biotechnology: Latest News: June 23rd 2004

 
    

:: Researchers Isolate Copper-Extracting Bacteria
By Louise Egan

A Japanese-Chilean research firm, BioSigma S.A., reported on Friday its first major breakthrough in developing new technology that uses bacteria to extract copper from poor quality mineral at a low cost.

Laboratory researchers at BioSigma isolated a bacteria that can leach copper from rock that is not economically feasible to exploit using traditional methods. The technology is the first of its kind and could be applied on a commercial scale by 2009. This result allows us to conclude the first phase of laboratory experiments, which we expect to culminate in a new bioleaching process on an industrial scale in the next five years," the company said in a statement.

Chile's state-owned Codelco, the world's largest copper producer, holds 66.6 percent of BioSigma and Japan's Nippon Mining & Metals Co. Ltd., Japan's biggest copper smelter, owns the remainder.

Some mining companies already use bacteria to complete the copper refining process, but BioSigma's research aims to apply the rock-eating bugs to ore from the start of the treatment cycle right at the mine site or on waste piled up nearby. "Other applications are used on copper concentrates and this will be used directly on the ore," said Pilar Parada, head of BioSigma's microbiology lab.

The home-grown technology could help Chile's copper industry, the lifeblood of the economy, to boost its resource base. Codelco also has a joint venture with BHP Billiton called Alliance Copper Limited, which uses another form of bioleaching to produce 20,000 tons a year of copper cathodes at a pilot plant in northern Chile. Commercial production will begin by 2007, according to Codelco.

   

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