A young Chilean scientist hopes to use “metal-eating bacteria” to make mining less polluting. His startup Rudanac Biotec is now seeking funding for large-scale trials.
In his laboratory in an industrial area in Antofagasta, in northern Chile, Nadac Reales, a 33-year-old biologist, has been carrying out research on extremophiles, organisms that live in extreme conditions since 2017.
After two years of work, they managed to “eat” a whole nail in just three days, giving hope for the development of environmentally friendly methods to remove certain metals from soils.
During her internship at the end of her university studies, the young scientist was interested in the elimination of metal waste left by mining companies.
Indeed, some equipment cannot be recycled in foundries, and ends up abandoned in the Atacama Desert, where a large part of the Chilean mining industry is concentrated. They then release heavy metals which pollute the environment.
Nadac Reales focused his research on bacteria of the Leptospirillum family, which in particular derive the energy necessary for their life process from the oxidation of ferrous elements. This type of bacteria “lives in an acidic environment and is hardly affected by the relatively high concentrations of most metals,” she explains.
“Initially, the bacteria took two months to disintegrate the nail. Afterwards, since they weren’t given much to eat, they had to feed themselves in one way or another. So it was a process of adaptation. “, says the scientist. And so, at the end of this process which lasted two years, the bacteria “biodegraded the nail in three days”, leaving only soluble matter concentrated in iron.
The scientist was thus able to determine the optimal conditions to breed these microorganisms and adapt them to their task. “Chemical and microbiological tests have been carried out to ensure that these bacteria do not harm” human health and that the residual solution they generate is not polluting, reassures the researcher.
Chile’s major industry
Mining contributes nearly 15% to the gross domestic product (GDP) of Chile, which is notably the world’s largest producer of copper. But it is also very polluting and mining companies pay dearly for the disposal of their waste, made compulsory by Chilean law.
Mining companies are therefore very interested in this research. But if Rudanac Biotec has benefited from the support of a start-up acceleration fund of the Chilean state, the young company is now seeking funding for large-scale trials.
Because after these tests on small objects, “we must now be able to validate this technology on a real scale and be able to biodegrade high tonnage metal structures, such as these dump trucks”, explains Nadac Reales, who has already filed an international patent application on this promising biotechnology.
afp / jop