These microbes may help future Martians and moon people mining metals

These microbes may help future Martians and moon people mining metals

The microbes may be friends of future settlers, living on the moon, Mars or anywhere else in the solar system and aiming to establish self-sufficient homes.

Space colonialists, like those on Earth, will need so-called rare earth components that are important to modern technologies. These 17 elements contain threatening names such as yttrium, lanthanum, neodymium and catolinium, which are rarely distributed in the earth’s crust. Were it not for the rare earths, we would not have some of the light, metal alloys and powerful magnets used in cell phones and electric cars.

But today mining them on earth is a difficult task. This involves crushing tons of ore and then extracting the smudges of these metals using chemicals that leave rivers of toxic wastewater.

Experiments at the International Space Station have shown that a cleaner, more efficient system could work in other worlds: let bacteria do the confusing work of separating rare earth elements from rock.

“Biology stimulates a reaction that occurs very slowly without biology,” said Charles S. Snyder, professor of astronomy at the University of Edinburgh. Gokal said.

On Earth, such biomining techniques are already used to produce 10 to 20 percent of the world’s copper and in some gold mines; Scientists have identified microorganisms that help expel rare earth elements from rocks.

Dr. So some of them were sent to the International Space Station last year.

Results, Published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications, Show that at least one of those bacteria, Spingomonas decaphiles, is not opened by the different forces of gravity.

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In the test, the so-called Biorac, 36 samples were injected into box-sized containers fitted with basalt fragments (a common rock made from refrigerated volcano). Half of the samples contained one of three types of bacteria; The others were just basalt.

At the space station, Luca Permitano, European Space Agency astronaut, Some of them were placed in a centrifugal loop at speed to simulate the gravity of Mars or Earth. Other models enjoyed the free-floating environment of space. Additional control tests were performed on the ground.

After 21 days, the bacteria were killed and the samples were returned to Earth for analysis.

For two of the three types of bacteria, the results were disappointing. But s. Decaphyllis increased the amount of rare earth elements extracted from basalt by almost two factors, even in a zero-gravity environment.

“This came as a surprise to us,” Dr. Gogol said, explaining that without gravity, there is usually no convection that carries waste from bacteria and replenishes the nutrients around the cells.

“One can assume that the microgravity will prevent the microbes from bioming or that it will put pressure on the area where they are not bioming,” he said. “Actually, we see no effect.”

The results were even better for low Mars gravity.

Fear Rasulnia, who studied biomechanics and holds a doctorate from Tampere University in Finland Rare earth elements, Called the results of the bioreactor test interesting, but noted that the yield was “very low even in ground tests”.

Dr. Cockel said biorhog is not designed to improve extraction. “We are really looking at the basic process of supporting biomining,” he said. “But of course this is not proof of business biomining.”

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The SpaceX cargo spacecraft next to the space station, currently scheduled for December, will undergo a follow-up test called a bio asteroid. Instead of basalt, matchbox-sized containers will contain pieces of meteorite and fungus. They are, rather than bacteria, agents that they test to break the rock.

“In the end, I think you can scale this to do this on Mars,” Dr. Kogel said

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Cary Douglas

About the Author: Cary Douglas

Wayne Ma is a reporter who covers everything from oil trading to China's biggest conglomerates and technology companies. Originally from Chicago, he is a graduate of New York University's business and economic reporting program.

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