Posts Tagged ‘rare earth’

Photo: Rosa Santomartino/ University of Edinburgh
Sphingomonas desiccabilis, a microbe unfazed by changes in gravity. Research in space suggests it could be used to mine rare elements on Mars.

Today I’m putting the idea of mining on Mars out there not because it’s imminent but because I’d appreciate hearing folks’ views on that sort of thing. I know we use rare minerals such as those on Mars for all our electronics, but on Earth the mining leads to exploitation and pollution in places like Africa and Afghanistan.

Here’s what Kenneth Chang at the New York Times has to say about the potential of Mars and how certain microbes could perform a cleaner kind of mining.

“Microbes may be the friends of future colonists living off the land on the moon, Mars or elsewhere in the solar system and aiming to establish self-sufficient homes.

“Space colonists, like people on Earth, will need what are known as rare earth elements, which are critical to modern technologies. These 17 elements, with daunting names like yttrium, lanthanum, neodymium and gadolinium, are sparsely distributed in the Earth’s crust. Without the rare earths, we wouldn’t have certain lasers, metallic alloys and powerful magnets that are used in cellphones and electric cars.

“But mining them on Earth today is an arduous process. It requires crushing tons of ore and then extracting smidgens of these metals using chemicals that leave behind rivers of toxic waste water.

“Experiments conducted aboard the International Space Station show that a potentially cleaner, more efficient method could work on other worlds: let bacteria do the messy work of separating rare earth elements from rock. …

“On Earth, such biomining techniques are already used to produce 10 to 20 percent of the world’s copper and also at some gold mines; scientists have identified microbes that help leach rare earth elements out of rocks.

“[Charles S. Cockell, a professor of astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh,] and his colleagues wanted to know whether these microbes would still live and function as effectively on Mars, where the pull of gravity on the surface is just 38 percent of Earth’s, or even when there is no gravity at all. So they sent some of them to the International Space Station last year.

“The results, published [Nov. 10] in the journal Nature Communications, show that at least one of those bacteria, a species named Sphingomonas desiccabilis, is unfazed by differing forces of gravity. …

“At the space station, Luca Parmitano, a European Space Agency astronaut, placed some of [Bacteria and basalt samples] in a centrifuge spun at speeds to simulate Mars or Earth gravity. …

“For two of the three types of bacteria, the results were disappointing. But S. desiccabilis increased the amount of rare earth elements extracted from the basalt by roughly a factor of two, even in the zero-gravity environment. … The results were even somewhat better for the lower Mars gravity. …

“ ‘Certainly this isn’t a demonstration of commercial biomining. … [But] I think eventually, you could scale this up to do it on Mars,’ Dr. Cockell said.” More here.

I wonder — by the time countries are capable of doing mining on Mars, will we even be using those minerals?

Photo: ESA & MPS for OSIRIS Team
Planet Mars, the “red planet.”

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