Some of the tiny creatures on Earth can help us with the mining of minerals in space. Experiments conducted on the International Space Station have revealed that bacteria can prove useful in improving mining efficiency in space by nearly 400%. It can help us recover materials such as magnesium, iron and rare earth minerals from space as we use them extensively in our electronic equipment and alloys.
Can bacteria extract minerals in space?
On Earth, bacteria play a vital role in obtaining minerals from the soil. They are responsible for the natural erosion of rocks and therefore for the release of the minerals stored in them. This ability of bacteria to recover metals has been used in human mining. It is called “biomining” and is very beneficial. The process can help reduce dependence on cyanide for gold mining, for example. The bacteria can also be used for the decontamination of polluted soils.
Mining on asteroids, the Moon and even Mars can be a valuable tool if we wish to build human outposts. Transportation of minerals from Earth is very expensive; even the cheapest option, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, requires $ 1,500 per kilogram (2.2 lbs) of material. As a result, the scientists investigated the feasibility of biominating in space. Astrobiologist Rosa Santomartino of the University of Edinburgh in the UK explained: “Microorganisms are highly versatile and can be used in space to perform a variety of tasks. Elementary extraction is one of these tasks “.
The research team developed a tiny biomining reactor the size of a matchbox over a 10-year period. This device can be transported and placed on the ISS very easily. In July 2019, 18 of these devices were brought to the ISS for experiments in low Earth orbit. Each of these 18 devices contained a solution of bacteria with a small piece of basalt. Over a period of 3 weeks, the basalt in each of these devices was exposed to the bacteria solution. It was done to determine if the bacteria were able to perform the same erosion activity as low gravity rocks.
Biomining can be very useful in space
The team used Sphingomonas desiccabilis, Bacillus subtilis is Cupriavidus metallidurans in their three bacterial solutions and performed experiments on the artificial gravity of Mars, the artificial gravity of the Earth, and microgravity. A device without bacteria in the solution was used as a reference. The research team found that the bacteria performed nearly identical leaching activity under all three gravitational conditions. They also found that the mining business for B. subtilis is C. metallidurans it was much lower and not very different from the reference solution, respectively.
The solution with S. desiccabilis it had extracted more rare earth minerals from basalt than the control solution. “For S. desiccabilis, on all individual rare earth components and each of the three gravity conditions on the ISS, the microbe drained 111.9% to 429.2% of the non-biological controls,” the scientists wrote in their article. They concluded their experiment by stating that with sufficient nutrients, biomination can be performed under various conditions of severity.
University of Edinburgh astrobiologist Charles Cockell said, “Our tests lend support to the logical and specialized feasibility of naturally enhanced essential mining activities throughout the Solar System.” Since it is very expensive to mine these minerals in space and transport them to Earth, biomination in space can help create a self-sustaining human presence in space. The research results were published in Nature Communications.