Bioleaching is a recycling technique that uses bacteria to recover some metals from mineral processing waste or used electronic equipment.
18 November 2019

Bioleaching: let's see how it works

Bioleaching is a recycling technique that uses bacteria to recover some metals from mineral processing waste or used electronic equipment. In this video, discover how this process works, which aims to reduce the consumption of primary resources to avoid their exhaustion. 


We consume an increasing amount of minerals in everyday life, but mineral resources are not inexhaustible. When we extract metals from underground deposits, many are left behind as the remaining elements are not valuable enough to extract. This is known as mineral processing waste. To extract valuable metals from mineral processing waste, scientists began to study a natural phenomenon: bioleaching. Let's see how it works. Mineral processing waste contains minerals but also living bacteria.

We bacteria can thrive in these piles of waste. All we need is access to air and water to multiply. But we also need energy, which we can collect by dissolving and transforming metals. This is bioleaching. In the process, we release acids that can pollute soils and cause environmental damage. To scale this process up for our needs, the scientists came up with a process to boost our metal production. To do this, the mineral matter we live in is ground into a powder and plunged into a bioreactor, a large and continuously stirred tank with water and nutrients. In this environment we can thrive and multiply exponentially. The result is a solution that contains the metals originally contained in the mining waste. Then all that's left to do is chemically filter the solution to retrieve the metals in solid form. This process also has the benefit of keeping the sulfuric acid we produce within the lab or factory. Otherwise, it may leach into the soil. The bioleaching process has moved beyond research and is now applied in the field. Bioleaching produces five percent of all gold and 20 to 25 percent of all copper extracted today. And research is still underway to find methods of applying this process to other waste such as circuit boards, for example. In this manner, scientists have found new methods that protect the environment and reduce waste by extracting the most value from it.

Biolixiviation: recovery of ores and wastes

The bioleaching process allows mining and electronic waste to be recovered through the action of bacteria to extract copper, gold, cobalt, zinc or nickel. BRGM is working to improve this technique. 


Copper, nickel, zinc, cobalt or gold...we consume more and more metals.To keep this up,we need to devise production methods that fit into a circular economy by recovering resources and waste. With this in mind, the Geologicaland Mining Research Bureauis looking at ways to put wasteto effective use.

In a circular economy, you extract a ton of ore somewhere to make something of it. It takes energy to extract it,treatment has to be optimized.

To do this, scientists turned towards a natural phenomenon: bioleaching. Let me explain. Extracting metals from the ground produces a lot of waste: mineral matter that contains a small amount of metal. Bacteria develop in this waste, polluting the soil.

These bacteria develop naturally in contact with the air, in the presence of such ore and waste. The environmental impact of this is very high, with acidification caused by the action of the bacteria, triggering leeching of the metals within the waste.

The bacteria release small quantities of metal from the rock, which are then recoverable. The ability of bacteria to produce energy by dissolving metals is called bioleaching. Researchers have developed an industrial process to optimize this phenomenon and produce metals. First, the ore must be ground down to facilitate the bacterial action. It is then mixed in a bioreactor with a nutrient solution.

It's a simple product, similar to a fertilizer. It contains nitrogen, phosphate, potassium and magnesium. It is shaken, to put the bacteria in contact with their environment: the nutrient solution and the solids. It is then left for a while. We can then recover a solution that contains metals.

By treating this waste, we can recover several types of metals.

At this stage, gold, cobalt and copperare three metals that can be recovered by bioleaching. Work is also being done on the recovery of nickel. Zinc, too, can be recovered.

The method makes it possible to recover waste metals and the sulfuric acid produced by the bacteria responsible for pollution.

The advantage of bioleaching is thatin reducing the environmental impact, we also find an effective use for the contents of the waste, thus killing two birds with one stone.

Bioleaching isn't just research, it is already being applied, as in Uganda, where tons of waste from a copper mine have for years contaminated the soil and nearby lake.

The initial pile of accumulated mining waste in Ugandawas one million tons. That one million tons contained 1% cobalt. Overall, between 10,000 and 15,000 tons of cobalt is estimated to have been produced in this period.

Today, bioleaching produces 5% of the gold and 20-25% of the world's copper. The BRGM is looking to improve this technique and apply it to other types of waste.

We are trying to find new targets for this process, new applications. We're working on the waste from coalmines, which havea great impact on the environment. For some time, we have been looking at electronic waste: computers and end-of-life phones. We want to adapt bacteria to collect the metals contained in this electronic waste.

All this research will allow us to recycle our waste and be part of tomorrow's circular economy.