Dec '13/Jan '14

Technology

Millions of cheap labourers in need of management

By Gabe Kalmar

Genomics, as a science, aims to decipher and understand an organism’s complete genetic information. In mining, it allows us to understand at a molecular level the impact that microbes can have on industrial processes. Equipped with this knowledge, we have the power to advance technologies that can exploit bacteria or other biological processes which can potentially cut costs and improve safety and environmental performance.

Many well-known problems in mining today can be im­proved by genomics-based technologies. Examples include the monitoring of effluent and the mitigation of its risk of environmental impact; developing tools to test environmental effects including toxicity for fish and wildlife; improving the recovery of target minerals and extracting residuals from lower grade ores; identifying potential deposits of interest; developing less costly processing techniques; and increasing the robustness of biological remediation practices.

There are numerous successful commercial applications of bacteria-based technologies in the mining industry, but a lack of understanding of the biological contributions has hampered more widespread usage, resulting in an inability to closely control processes and a decrease in overall reliability. The industry therefore might be hesitant to adopt such technologies even though they can potentially have better economics than conventional process alternatives. For instance, sensitivity to sudden changes in the surrounding environment such as flows, temperature or pH can be mitigated more effectively than current control measures if the biological contributions in such processes is better understood through genomics. Fundamentally, we can identify the causes that will have a direct impact on process control.

We are seeing this in practice with a Toronto-based company that is hoping to use bacteria to extract gold in the remediation of arsenopyrite mineral wastes in northern Manitoba. While its biological technology is already viable, the company is collaborating with university researchers, who can provide a higher level of understanding of process effectiveness by using genomics.

Many mine sites can become long-term sources of environmental concern for liable companies and governments. For example, more than 6,000 abandoned mines have been identified in Ontario alone, and other provinces face similar challenges. Bioremediation, or the harnessing of natural communities of microbes to clean up a polluted site, can be a cost-effective solution for mitigating environmental effects at some of these sites. However, it is not yet completely clear why bioremediation is successful in some cases but fails in others. Genomics-based technologies could answer these questions.

The mining industry is currently investing in a growing number of projects based on biological processes like bioleaching of ores, passive treatment of acid mine drainage and biomonitoring. Future work will likely focus on applications like tailings management, remediation and mineral processing, ideally creating a series of new tools that process engineers can use to aid decision-making during the design and troubleshooting of biological systems.

Genome British Columbia, a non-profit research organization that invests in and manages large-scale genomics projects, focuses financial and human resources on the province’s strategic economic sectors. The organization invests in research that aims to provide relevant and practical solutions to end-user operations. Future genome research conducted in B.C. will not only provide benefits to the province but to companies across Canada and around the world.

To provide industry with an opportunity to learn more about the potential of genomics applications in mining, and to give the organization a better idea of areas the industry would like to target, Genome BC is holding a round table on January 28, 2014, during AME BC’s Roundup conference in Vancouver. Invited participants include academics with experience in genomics who can relate to specific interests of the industry, mining sector decision-makers, companies experienced in the application of genomics, and selected provincial and federal government representatives. Topics for discussion will include biomonitoring, bioleaching, tailings management, effluent treatment and bioremediation.

It is expected that the round table will identify high priority areas for future research, which will be further assessed at a subsequent meeting during the CIM Conference, also in Vancouver, between May 11 and 14, 2014.


Gabe_KalmarDr. Gabe Kalmar is the senior vice-president of sector development for Genome BC. He is a strategic leader in business development and fundraising for the purpose of catalyzing innovation in economic sectors important to B.C.


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