Microbes can mine rare earth elements in space

Bacteria phagocytosis may one day extract elements for building rover and electronic equipment on Mars or the Moon.
In the mining industry, the work of eating microorganisms is very heavy. They extract metals such as copper and gold from the earth. They can also extract rare earth elements such as lanthanides, scan and yttrium, which are expensive minerals used in electronic products and certain metal alloys.
 
According to a new study, such microorganisms can also help space mining. Experiments conducted on the International Space Station (ISS) show that under conditions similar to the Earth and gravity, under microgravity conditions similar to those of the Moon and Mars, Sphingomonas desiccabilis bacteria can effectively extract 14 different rare earth elements from basalt .

 
Charles Cockell, an astrobiologist at the University of Edinburgh, said that this means that human settlements on the moon or Mars may extract rare earth elements from the local environment for use in the construction of mobile stations, electronic equipment and Other technical research. He said: "No matter where we go, we will have to mine planetary or asteroid materials to maintain a long-term existence in space. This is a demonstration of a specific method."
 
On the International Space Station, astronauts add bacteria and basalt to a micro-reactor under microgravity conditions and add it in a specially designed incubator equipped with a centrifuge that can simulate the gravity of Mars and the Earth. The research team chose basalt because it contains a high concentration of rare earth metals and is similar to rocks on the moon and Mars. The mixing of fluids in microgravity is not as good as on Earth, so Kirkel and his colleagues speculate that microorganisms may not be able to effectively erode basalt. But after three weeks, the bugs behaved the same under all three gravity conditions. "This is indeed the first mining experiment in space," Cocker said.
Some microorganisms extract metals from rocks by acidifying the medium, but this is not the case. In contrast, Staphylococcus anhydrous excretes polysaccharides bound to metals and preferentially captures rare earth metals. Kirkel and his colleagues are now studying how microorganisms can accurately leach metals.
 
Buz Barstow, a synthetic biologist at Cornell University, said the advantage of this method is that a vial of cells can self-assemble into a mining operation, but he was not involved in the research. He said, but rare earth elements are relatively small, so a large number of microorganisms are needed to produce a small amount of minerals, and these cells will need a large number of sugar to promote their metabolism. He said that scientists will have to figure out how to produce enough nutrients in space to support cell growth.
 
Barstow said: "There are obviously many steps from a prototype to a biological mining system that can be used in space, but they are a good start."

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