Bioleaching of Ilmenite and Basalt in the Presence of Iron-oxidizing and Iron-Scavenging Bacteria


Bioleaching has been suggested as an alternative to traditional mining techniques in extraterrestrial environments because it does not require extensive infrastructure and bulky hardware. In situ bioleaching of silicate minerals, such as those found on the moon or Mars, has been proposed as a feasible alternative to traditional extraction techniques that require either extreme heat and/or substantial chemical treatment. In this study, we investigated the biotic and abiotic leaching of basaltic rocks (analogues to those found on the moon and Mars) and the mineral ilmenite (FeTiO3) in aqueous environments under acidic (pH ~ 2.5) and circumneutral pH conditions. The biological leaching experiments were conducted using Acidithiobacillus ferrooxidans, an iron (Fe)-oxidizing bacteria, and Pseudomonas mendocina, an Fe-scavenging bacteria. We found that both strains were able to grow using the Fe(II) derived from the tested basaltic rocks and ilmenite. Although silica leaching rates were the same or slightly less in the bacterial systems with A. ferrooxidans than in the abiotic control systems, the extent of Fe, Al and Ti released (and re-precipitated in new solid phases) was actually greater in the biotic systems. This is likely because the Fe(II) leached from the basalt was immediately oxidized by A. ferrooxidans, and precipitated into Fe(III) phases which causes a change in the equilibrium of the system, i.e. Le Chatelier's principle. Iron(II) in the abiotic experiment was allowed to build up in solution which led to a decrease in its overall release rate. For example, the percentage of Fe, Al and Ti leached (dissolved + reactive mineral precipitates) from the Mars simulant in the A. ferrooxidans experimental system was 34, 41 and 13% of the total Fe, Al and Ti in the basalt, respectively, while the abiotic experimental system released totals of only 11, 25 and 2%. There was, however, no measurable difference in the amounts of Fe and Ti released from ilmenite in the experiments with A. ferrooxidans versus the abiotic controls. P. mendocina scavenged some Fe from the rock/mineral substrates, but the overall amount of leaching was small (<2% of total Fe in rocks) when compared with the acidophilic systems. Although the mineralogy of the tested basaltic rocks was roughly similar, the surface areas of the lunar and Mars simulants varied greatly and thus were possible factors in the overall amount of metals released. Overall, our results indicate that the presence of bacteria does not increase the overall silica leaching rates of basaltic rocks; however, the presence of A. ferrooxidans does lead to enhanced release of Fe, Al and Ti and subsequent sequestration of Fe (and other metals) in Fe(III)-precipitates.


Geosciences and Geological and Petroleum Engineering

Keywords and Phrases

basalt; biomineralization; chemical alteration; ilmenite; in situ measurement; iron-reducing bacterium; leaching; Mars; Moon; sampling; Acidithiobacillus ferrooxidans; Bacteria (microorganisms); Pseudomonas mendocina; Bioleaching; biomineral; biomining; in situ resource utilization; iron oxidizing bacteria

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