Codelco will use innovative bioleaching technology developed by Biosigma with CMM’s support

Codelco will use innovative bioleaching technology developed by Biosigma with CMM’s support

After 12 years of experiments, studies, lab tests, pilot schemes, prototypes, and test at industrial and semi industrial levels, today we have the industrial technology to produce copper using bacteria.

It is a bioleaching process where the microorganisms extract red metal from low grade sulphide ores: basically, bacteria dissolve sulfur and iron, letting copper free in a soluble way. This new method is more efficient and lower cost than ones used currently. In its development took part the Center for Mathematical Modeling (CMM) of Universidad de Chile, which worked with Biosigma, Codelco’s subsidiary that made this technology. The firm was born in 2002 as part of Genoma Chile governmental program and searched applying recent achievements in Genomics, Proteomics and Bioinformatics to Mining. One object was designing technologies to get red metal from the most abundant and resistant to high temperatures copper ore: chalcopyrite.

Precisely that year, the company called for a public competitive examination, seeking ideas to concrete Biosigma Project. CMM researchers Servet Martínez and Alejandro Maass, with INTA biologist Mauricio González, presented a proposal and got the creation of a reference laboratory on Bioinfomatics and Mathematical Modeling.

“Over 60 proposals participated and we were the only Chilean one which was working for more than 12 years in this Project” remembered Maass, director of CMM’s Mathomics lab on Bioinformatics, known then as LBMG.

Academics incorporated bioinformatics analysis to the research. These analyses generated molecular tools used today to support the technology. Researchers were responsible for sequencing assembly or aligning and merging fragments of bacteria DNA sequence. These bacteria were selected by Codelco subsidiary because of its efficiency in bioleaching copper sulfide. On next stage, the group studied gene expression, which explained how microorganisms worked on mining conditions. On last phases, they examined metabolic fluxes or series of reactions happening in the cells and the relationship among them using Metabolic Engineering and Metabolomics.

“A product we protected with Biosigma in different countries is a series of patents on the bioleaching piles’ biomonitoring systems. They are superspecific markers of the bacteria presence. This system is part of one stage of the technology presented by Biosigma few days ago” explained Maass.

In parallel, the subsidiary scaled the Project to industrial applications, which were validated at Radomiro Tomic division in 2013. In 12 months, this test recovered 30% of more fine copper than conventional systems, increased speed of mineral recovery and extracted –at environment temperature– between eight and 14 times more copper from chalcopyrite. This is an open ending for a story that continues this second semester, when the division uses these bacteria for copper production.

“The most important challenge was to move forward in issues that were opening in the world at the same time. We must remember human genome and sequencing technologies are from ending of 1990s and beginning of 2000s and not always the necessary tools were: in fact, we had to generate, adapt and coordinate with the needs of the Project” remembered Maass.

In that way, the Project had concrete results in six patents, but also in the training of human resources, said Maass: “All this allow us to generate a critic mass of Young people who took doctorates in Bioinformatics and other issues all around the world and to create a world-class group at CMM, which assumed other big projects. Many of these Young people came back to Chile to enhance bioinformatic areas, while other group stayed in first-class Bioinformatic centers in USA or Europe”

Posted on Sep 1, 2014 in Frontpage, News