NOV 14, 2020 9:00 AM PST

Bacteria Make Space Mining 400% More Effective

WRITTEN BY: Annie Lennon

Researchers aboard the International Space Station (ISS) have shown that bacteria can increase space mining efficiency by more than 400%. Their findings pave the way for easier access to materials such as magnesium, iron, and rare Earth minerals while in space. 

Carrying materials from Earth into space is expensive. Even with SpaceX's Falcon Heavy, it costs $1,500 to send a kilogram of payload into space. As such, ways to make use of materials already in space has been a keen area of research for some time. 

As such, for over ten years, a team of researchers had been developing small, matchbox-sized devices called 'biomining reactors' that are easily transported to and installed on the ISS. And in July 2019, they finally managed to ship 18 of the devices to the ISS for low-orbit experiments. 

For the experiments, each reactor contained a bacterial solution containing a small piece of basalt, a volcanic rock abundant on the moon. For three weeks, the basalt rock in each rector was exposed to the bacterial solution to see whether the bacteria could extract minerals from the rock in a similar way to how it does on Earth. 

In three gravitational environments- one simulating Mars, one Earth, and one microgravity, the team aboard the ISS performed experiments with different kinds of bacteria: Sphingomonas desiccabilisBacillus subtilis, and Cupriavidus metallidurans. They also used a control solution with no bacteria. 

All in all, they found that whereas B. subtilis and C. metallidurans yielded results similar to the control solution, S. desiccabilis managed to extract significantly more rare-earth minerals from the basalt than the control solutions. In particular, the bacteria managed to leach between 111.9% and 429.2% more of the rare earth elements than the control solutions. 

The researchers also noted that different gravitational forces did not seem to affect the performance of any of the bacteria. This came as a surprise given previous studies have found that microgravity affects microbial processes. The researchers also found that each bacteria reached similar concentrations in all three gravitational conditions, likely as they had sufficient nutrients grow. 

In the end, the researchers concluded that, with sufficient nutrients, biomining can significantly enhance rare mineral extraction in several gravitational conditions that may occur in space. While it is not necessarily economically viable to return materials harnessed from this process to Earth, the researchers say that biomining may nevertheless play a key role in supporting a self-sustaining human presence in space. 

 

Sources: Science AlertNature Communications

About the Author
  • Science writer with a keen interest in behavioral biology, consciousness medicine and technology. Her current focus is how the interplay of these fields can create meaningful interactions, products and environments.
You May Also Like
NOV 24, 2020
Earth & The Environment
Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich will extend sea level monitoring
NOV 24, 2020
Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich will extend sea level monitoring
Days ago, a new satellite was launched from Space Launch Complex 4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California with the ...
DEC 11, 2020
Chemistry & Physics
Cosmic Expansion: Universe Stretches, We don't
DEC 11, 2020
Cosmic Expansion: Universe Stretches, We don't
Physicists believe that we exist in an expanding universe. But what does that mean? Do our habitats, bodies, and atoms & ...
APR 03, 2021
Space & Astronomy
Scientists Find Strange Green Rock on Mars
APR 03, 2021
Scientists Find Strange Green Rock on Mars
NASA's Perseverance rover has found a strange, green rock on the surface of Mars that is having its science team' ...
MAY 07, 2021
Space & Astronomy
Did Scientists Just Find Mushrooms on Mars?
MAY 07, 2021
Did Scientists Just Find Mushrooms on Mars?
While experts agree that most life on Earth would not be able to survive on Mars, NASA researchers have previously sugge ...
MAY 09, 2021
Space & Astronomy
NASA's Ingenuity Helicopter Completes Its First One-Way Trip on Mars
MAY 09, 2021
NASA's Ingenuity Helicopter Completes Its First One-Way Trip on Mars
NASA sent the Perseverance rover to Mars loaded with cutting edge technology, one piece of which is a robotic helicopter ...
MAY 16, 2021
Space & Astronomy
Measuring the Natural Illumination in the Night Sky
MAY 16, 2021
Measuring the Natural Illumination in the Night Sky
It may get dark at night, but there's still light in the sky in even the darkest places. This low glow comes from natura ...
Loading Comments...