Metal-Eating Bacteria May Be Key To Solving Electric Vehicle Battery Supply Shortage, Researcher Says Radio-Canada News

The key to supplying the auto industry with enough electric vehicle batteries may lie in toxic visual pollution: Sudbury’s vast tailings ponds.

The residues are waste left over from ore extraction processes – often mixed with water and stored in ponds. But for several years, the potential for toxic substances to leak into the surrounding environment has raised concerns about these residues and questions about what, if anything, can be done with them.

Nadia Mykytczuk, acting president and CEO of the MIRARCO mining research facility and acting executive director of the Goodman School of Mines, both at Laurentian University in Sudbury, said there is a way to reuse tailings and to provide enough material for the expected electricity demand. vehicle (VE) batteries.

Mykytczuk, holder of the Laurentian Industrial Research Chair in Biomining, Bioremediation and Science Communication, presented his ideas at BEV In-Depth, a major conference on the future of electric vehicles held at Science North in Sudbury Wednesday and Thursday.

“The challenge ahead of us is that we have to transition away from fossil fuels very quickly, and that means we’re going to have a very rapid increase in demand for battery minerals,” Mykytczuk told CBC News. “We have to make a lot of batteries to get you to get the electric cars and get them into the hands of consumers.

“And that’s going to require a lot more mining.”

Biomining could reduce the cost of mining

In April, Steve LeVine, editor of The Electric, a publication focused on electric vehicles, said in an interview with CBC News that the world’s mines produced only about half of the essential minerals needed to meet the targets of the automotive industry for electric vehicles.

This year, he said, automakers plan to build 7.7 million electric vehicles, but will only have access to enough nickel – a key ingredient in their batteries – to build about 3.6 of them. million that can travel 400 kilometers or more on a single charge.

“At the end of the decade, the desire is to manufacture between 25 and 40 million EVs, if we count the Chinese [industry] and Tesla,” LeVine said. “There’s enough nickel to make 13 million.”

Tailings ponds, like the one pictured here, are visible around the city of Sudbury. It is estimated that they contain between 7 and 10 billion dollars of nickel. (Yvon Theriault/Radio-Canada)

According to Mykytczuk, that’s where the Sudbury residue comes in.

“We have a lot of surface metals contained in the mining waste,” she said. “If you go to Copper Cliff and the tailings area, which is quite large, it actually has a significant amount – between $7 and $10 billion of nickel in this mining waste.”

Despite the estimated value of the waste, companies have yet to invest money in metal mining due to the high cost of returning tailings to the smelter, she said. But that could change with the application of bacteria in a niche area called biomining.

“We have a diversity of life forms on this planet,” Mykytczuk said. “These bacteria have actually evolved to eat iron and sulfur. They can break down minerals like pyrite and pyrrhotite which actually transport metals like nickel, copper and cobalt.”

Nadia Mykytczuk, Acting President and CEO of MIRARCO and Acting Executive Director of the Goodman School of Mines, both of Laurentian University in Sudbury, says biomining offers a way to reuse tailings and provide enough material needed to meet the projected demand for electric vehicle batteries. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

Imagine a brewery, she says, and its large metal vats used to ferment beer.

“You can build big metal tanks that we call bioreactors, and you can put the material in there,” Mykytczuk said. “The tailings are like a fine, sand-like material. We put it in the reactor, we add some nutrients into the liquid matrix, some acidity.

“We then stir and aerate this mixture and allow bacteria to break down these materials,” she said. “We then separate the solids from the liquids, and the liquids now contain a concentrated amount of nickel, copper and cobalt that we are looking for.”

In the past, monitoring this process was a bit of a “black box,” Mykytczuk said. But recent advances in genome sequencing will allow developers to monitor activity more closely.

“Controlling a biological process, if you’re not actually monitoring it, can be very difficult,” she said. “It could go one way or the other if the bacteria were moving from one community to another.

“But everything is changing,” she said. “We are working to make it a reliable and robust technology to combat this waste that will not be profitable using other extraction methods.”

Ministry responsible for dam safety inspections

In an email to CBC News in November 2021, Ontario’s Ministry of Northern Development and Mines said it was responsible for tailings dam safety inspections through its Safety Services Unit. engineering (ESU).

“ESU undertakes technical reviews of projects to construct off-line tailings structures such as dams (structures that do not retain part of a lake, river or stream) at operating mines” , the statement said.

“He also performs site assessments and risk assessments of abandoned tailings dams across the province, to help prioritize repairs at those sites.”

Over the past 15 years, nickel mining company Vale has upgraded five dams in the Copper Cliff area that were built using what the industry calls the upstream method. This is when the tailings themselves – which are the waste rock by-product of the mine’s crushing operations – are used to build a dam.

In 2019, following a tailings dam collapse in Brazil, Vale released a review of its tailings dam infrastructure around the world. This report listed eight dams at Copper Cliff that had an “extreme” danger designation if they were to collapse.

Of these eight dams, four were built using the upstream method.

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