"Nature has had billions of years to come up with a solution to these problems"
A German biotechnology company has engineered a bacteria that matches the ability of the noxious chemical cyanide to isolate precious metals, retaining close to 100% by breaking down waste and ore. Cyanidation, the practice of using cyanide to extract precious metals such as gold, silver and palladium, can greatly damage the environment if it escapes into waterways and can kill huge numbers of wildlife by starving water of its oxygen. While banned in countries including Czech Republic and parts of the US, it is still common practice in other parts of the world.
BRAIN biotechnology has sought to put an end to it by developing BioXtractor, an all-in-one transportable solution housed in a shipping container that breaks down computer hardware such as microchips and circuit boards using a completely safe biological method. The company’s pilot plant is able to process six tonnes of material a year, yielding precious metals in kilogram-scale, by extracting from electronic waste, metallurgic slags and the ashes from incinerators.
Using an arrangement of pressurised metal units that make the bacteria most effective, BioXtractor can be adapted to specific plant requirements and offers what the company describes as a “sustainable answer and an exciting option to secure future precious metal supply”. According to BRAIN, around 40 million tonnes of electronic trash – such as microchips and circuit boards – are created around the world annually. One tonne of boards alone can contain up to 250g of gold and one kilogramme of silver, while the circuit boards from 40 mobile phones contain around one gramme of gold, according to BRAIN.
Speaking at this year’s European Forum for Industrial Biotechnology (EFIB), where BRAIN was revealing BioXtractor to some delegates for the first time, the company’s chief executive officer, Jürgen Eck, said the microorganism was a game changer. “Nature has had billions of years to come up with a solution to these problems. The microorganism BRAIN uses is able to isolate 98% of precious metals from ore and waste using no toxic chemicals,” said Eck.
Also at EFIB, Janez Potočnik, the Slovenian politician who served as European Commissioner for Environment, made a keynote speech that outlined the challenge the world faces in the search for a more sustainable future. Revealing to the auditorium that wealthy countries consume ten-times more material than poor ones, Potočnik said that it was vital that the level of well-being achieved in those wealthy countries was not generalised globally. He also reinforced how sustainability, in order for it to truly work, had to extract the maximum value possible when it was in action.
“Bio economy has to respect sustainability criteria and it has to be complementary and in-line with decoupling and circular economy principles,” he said.
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