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Bioleaching

Bioleaching, bacterial leaching, biooxidation and bacterial oxidation are terms used to
describe process for metal extraction from sulphidic ores by making use of specific types of
bacteria that degrade sulphide and iron minerals naturally. The technology was developed
after realising that geological weathering is due to microbiological degradation or mineral
oxidative dissolution brought about by the action of acidophilic bacteria. By classification,
bacteria can be
i)
ii)

autotrophic (living on inorganic matter) or heterotrophic (living on organic


matter)
aerobic that use O2 for growth e.g. those that live on sulphides or anaerobic
those that do not need O2 for growth e.g. those that live on sulphates, nitrates
and carbohydrates.

The bacteria used for bioleaching are Thiobacillus ferro-oxidans and Thiobacillus thiooxidans and both are autotrophic and aerobic. They are capable of regenerating the
oxidising reagent that chemically reacts with the metal sulphides. They have the following
characteristics
1. Make use of O2 to oxidise mineral substances with release of energy which is
necessary for their growth
2. Utilise CO2 as principal source of carbon required for synthesis of organic
compounds composing the cell (like plants do).
3. They get nutrients from leach solutions, allowing them to grow and multiply. E.g.
under industrial operations where the supply of fresh leach solution is maintained,
they multiply logarithmically:
n = noekt
where n is their number after time t, no is their initial number, k is a constant. E.g. a
leach solution in a copper dump leaching operation may contain up to 10 million
microorganisms/mL!

T.b. ferrooxidans, magnification x 900

T.b. ferrooxidans, magnification x 40 000

4. They have resistance to high concentration of metal ions in solution e.g. Cu2+ which
are highly toxic to other forms of life.
5. They adapt to live and grow in strongly acidic environments (pH 1.5 -3). Above pH 6
they become dormant and above pH 9 they are destroyed.
6. They are destroyed by light esp. ultraviolet light. They thrive best in total darkness.
In shallow ponds their action is minimised during day light
7. Maximum activity is achieved at a temperature of about 35oC. For thermophilic
bacteria, the temperatures can be as high as 85oC.
8. They manufacture enzymes which catalyse the oxidation process:
MS(s) M2+(aq) + S2-(aq)
S2- + 2O2 SO42-

The bacteria adhere to the sulphide mineral surface, making it possible for
rapid S2- oxidation.
9. They catalyse the oxidation of any So generated during chemical dissolution of
sulphide minerals:
MS + 2H+ + O2 M2+ + S +H2O
S + 3/2 O2 + H2O 2H+ + SO42This happens because the T.b. thio-oxidans derives energy from oxidation of So and
S2O32- to sulphuric acid.
Thus the possibility of obtaining elemental sulphur during bacterial leaching is
eliminated!
10. They catalyse the oxidation of any ferrous ions generated during leaching of pyrite:
FeS2 + 7/2O2 + H2O Fe2+ + 2SO42- + 2H+
2Fe2+ + O2 + 2H+ 2Fe3+ + H2O

This happens because T.b. ferro-oxidans increases the kinetics of the 2nd reaction.
Industrially, biooxidation is applied in oxidising and leaching sulphides in in situ and dump
leaching operations. Tpypical applications include

Recovery of Cu, Ni, Co Zn, Mo


Oxidation of pyrite to liberate locked-in gold
Generation of acid to dissolve uranium minerals associated with pyrite
Elimination of pyrite from coal.

Advantages

is that the process is cheap i.e. simpler and economic to operate.


used for low-grade ores located in remote areas that would be expensive to
process by energy intensive methods
No SO2 emissions, low energy use etc.

Disadvantages

Slower kinetics compared to e.g. pressure leaching


Not all ores are bio-leachable. There should be Fe or a reduced form of S.
Corrosion of equipment due to low pH
Need to neutralise the acid prior to disposal. Acid can destroy vegetation and other
organisms in the vicinity.

Commercial applications
About 20-25% of copper produced in the USA and 5% of the worlds copper is produced by
bioleaching. Technologies in use include BIOXTM and BioCOPTM, BioNICTM, BioZINCTM etc
with application in Chile, Ghana, Brazil, Uganda, RSA, USA, China, Myanmar etc.