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Researchers Successfully Biomine Vanadium Aboard the Space Station

(FASTMAIL) -  For centuries, humans have mined materials to build the tools we use every day, from batteries and cell phones to airplanes and refrigerators. While the process of obtaining these important minerals used to rely entirely on heavy machinery, fire, and human labor, scientists have learned how to harness the natural power of microbes to do some of the work.

 This process, called biomining, has become common as a cost efficient and environmentally friendly way to obtain the metals around us in nature. As humans plan expeditions deeper into space, biomining offers a way to obtain needed materials for use on other planetary bodies rather than transporting them from Earth.

To test whether microbes could biomine vanadium in altered gravitational conditions, the team filled a KUBIK incubator on the space station with liquid growth media, a mixture of nutrients designed to support the growth of microorganisms. The team then grew selected microbes known to break down rocks under microgravity and simulated lunar and Martian gravity conditions. The researchers also supplied the microbes with basalt, a constituent of the lunar and Martian surfaces.



 The results were promising. “We were surprised gravity did not have an effect,” says Cockell, “But we think the reason is that for the period of the experiment, 21 days, the microbes were able to grow to their maximum concentration, even in the absence of sedimentation or convection on the space station. Therefore, they were able to mine in the same way, even in different gravity conditions.”

As we learn more about the microbes on Earth, we may discover many that are good candidates for biomining. Scientists currently are doing experiments in the lab to understand the mechanisms behind mining interactions and how these microbes do what they do.

While Biorock’s results provide evidence for the feasibility of biomining in space on the microscopic scale, it could help scientists learn how to make biomining feasible on a macroscale as well. “Right now, the bioreactors are very small. When we are using these bioreactors on a larger industrial scale, what would the effectiveness be on the surface of an asteroid?” Cockell says. “These results will help us answer the mechanisms behind biomining and develop useful technology for Earth.”

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