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These Microbes Might Assist Future Martians and Moon Folks Mine Metals

These Microbes Might Assist Future Martians and Moon Folks Mine Metals

Microbes could be the buddies of future colonists residing off the land on the moon, Mars or elsewhere within the photo voltaic system and aiming to determine self-sufficient properties.

House colonists, like individuals on Earth, will want what are often called uncommon earth components, that are vital to fashionable applied sciences. These 17 components, with daunting names like yttrium, lanthanum, neodymium and gadolinium, are sparsely distributed within the Earth’s crust. With out the uncommon earths, we wouldn’t have sure lasers, metallic alloys and highly effective magnets which might be utilized in cellphones and electrical automobiles.

However mining them on Earth at the moment is an arduous course of. It requires crushing tons of ore after which extracting smidgens of those metals utilizing chemical compounds that depart behind rivers of poisonous waste water.

Experiments carried out aboard the Worldwide House Station present {that a} probably cleaner, extra environment friendly technique may work on different worlds: let micro organism do the messy work of separating uncommon earth components from rock.

”The concept is the biology is actually catalyzing a response that will happen very slowly with out the biology,” mentioned Charles S. Cockell, a professor of astrobiology on the College of Edinburgh.

On Earth, such biomining strategies are already used to provide 10 to 20 % of the world’s copper and in addition at some gold mines; scientists have recognized microbes that assist leach uncommon earth components out of rocks.

Dr. Cockell and his colleagues wished to know whether or not these microbes would nonetheless reside and performance as successfully on Mars, the place the pull of gravity on the floor is simply 38 % of Earth’s, and even when there isn’t a gravity in any respect. In order that they despatched a few of them to the Worldwide House Station final 12 months.

The outcomes, published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications, show that at least one of those bacteria, a species named Sphingomonas desiccabilis, is unfazed by differing forces of gravity.

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At the space station, Luca Parmitano, an European Space Agency astronaut, placed some of them in a centrifuge spun at speeds to simulate Mars or Earth gravity. Other samples experienced the free-floating environment of space. Additional control experiments were conducted on the ground.

After 21 days, the bacteria were killed, and the samples returned to Earth for analysis.

For two of the three types of bacteria, the results were disappointing. But S. desiccabilis increased the amount of rare earth elements extracted from the basalt by roughly a factor of two, even in the zero-gravity environment.

“That surprised us,” Dr. Cockell said, explaining that without gravity, there is no convection that usually carries away waste from the bacteria and replenishes nutrients around the cells.

“One might then hypothesize that microgravity would stop the microbes from doing biomining or it would stress them to the point where they weren’t doing biomining,” he said. “In fact, we saw no effect at all.”

The results were even somewhat better for the lower Mars gravity.

Payam Rasoulnia, a doctoral student at Tampere University in Finland who has studied biomining of rare earth elements, called the BioRock experiment’s results interesting, but noted that the yields were “very low even in the ground experiments.”

Dr. Cockell said BioRock was not designed to optimize extraction. “We’re really looking at the fundamental process that underpins biomining,” he said. “But certainly this isn’t a demonstration of commercial biomining.”

The next SpaceX cargo mission to the space station, currently scheduled for December, will carry a follow-up experiment called BioAsteroid. Instead of basalt, the match box-size containers will contain pieces of meteorites and fungi. They, rather than bacteria, will be the agents they test for breaking down the rock.

“I think eventually, you could scale this up to do it on Mars,” Dr. Cockell said

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