2000 Wadsworth Award Lecture - Expanding role of microbiology in metallurgical processes

Brierley, James A.
Organization: Society for Mining, Metallurgy & Exploration
Pages: 5
Publication Date: Jan 1, 2000
The author has known Professor Wadsworth since the 1960s, when interest in the application of microbial technology for metallurgical processes was beginning its rapid rise. The development of bioleaching and mineral biooxidation was advanced, in part, by Wadsworth's belief in the potential for its application, as well as by his numerous contributions to the understanding of the fundamentals of hydro-metallurgy. Wadsworth is recognized for fostering research and development of the field and adding credibility to microbiological-based metallurgical processes, now often referred to as biohydrometallurgy. This Wadsworth Award is recognition of the field of biohy-drometallurgy. It is an honor to serve as a representative for all those individuals involved in research and commercial development of this technology. Modern commercial application of biohydromctallurgy began with the bioleaching of copper from submarginal-grade. run-of-mine material. Kennecott Copper successfully developed this process in the 1950s at the Bingham Canyon Mine in Utah. Other mining operations around the world followed Kennecott's lead. Today, dump bioleaching remains a very low-cost process for scavenging copper from rock that cannot be economically processed by any other method. Despite the commercial success of dump bioleaching, little effort has been made to enhance the micro Biological component of this leach process. Expansion of biohydro metallurgy into recovery of other metals did not occur until the mid-1980s, when the first commercial plant for the pretreatment of refractory gold-bearing concentrate was commissioned at the Fairview operation in south Africa. Now, processes for copper bioleaching and refractory gold pretreatment are engineered specifically to promote the activity of the microorganisms. This paper reviews the current state of commercial applications of biohydrometallurgy. It examines potential future developments and portrays the role of the microbiologist in facilitating continued growth and commercial acceptance of the technology. The commercia1 examples in this paper illustrate the expansion of microbial processing in the mining industry during the last 20 years. Copper bioleaching Early commercial applications of bioleach technology involved processing submarginal-grade, copper- bearing, run-of- mine rock in dumps. Recent applications of the technology use engineered bioleach heaps. Currently. all of these operations are in the Southern Hemi-
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