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Turning electronic waste into gold with microbes

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It actually is like magic. In the facilities of BiotaTec, an Estonian technology company based in Tartu, the country’s second-largest city and academic hub, processes are underway that can strip electronic waste, such as computer motherboards, of precious metals. Using the company’s bioleaching methods, they can also extract targeted metals or compounds from oil shale, neodymium magnets, power plant ash, and ores in sensitive environments, such as Greenland.

Yet their solution does not rely on a big processing plant, high temperatures, or chemicals. According to CEO Sirli Sipp Kulli, even the water used in BiotaTec’s processes can be recycled. “There is no smoke, no smell, and people will not be disturbed by our approach,” Sipp Kulli said.

Biomining – endless recycling

So, what is BiotaTec using? Biology. Life. Microorganisms. The process is called biomining and relies on using bacteria, fungi, or other microbes to extract metals from ores or other solid materials. At its Tartu facility, BiotaTec can feed its microbes a magnet from a wind turbine; for example, the bugs will break it down into fine metal dust that can be reused again in a new magnet.

“The atom never wears out,” said Priit Jõers, BioaTec’s chief scientific officer. “So if you just pour it into a new form, a new mould, then you can recycle it endlessly,” he said.

Another application is, as noted, extracting precious metals from electronic wastes, and it is this particular use case that can make the eyes of BiotaTec’s management glitter like gold, indeed. “We can put in a bunch of motherboards, put in our special juice, and the organisms will eat the gold off the boards,” said Sipp Kulli. “You take the organisms out and just wash out the gold.”

While pricing for biomining is case-dependent, it is linked to the value of the output material. A gram of gold is currently worth about $65-$70, said Jõers. But a gram of nanogold is worth about $80,000. That makes the biomining of nanogold particles a lucrative prospect for BiotaTec, for sure. “Nanometals are worth so much more,” said Sipp Kulli.

When asked what microorganisms BiotaTec is using in its biomining technology, branded as BiotaMet, the company’s management declined to name names for the reason that its cocktail of microbes is, in some cases, proprietary. The company has learned to make its teams of hungry microorganisms work together in the mining process.

“To put it bluntly,” said Sipp Kulli, “one group of microorganisms is pooping something out that is just food for the next group of microorganisms. We put the microorganisms into a cascade of working with each other, and via this solution, we are extracting valuable elements.”

Pivot from genomics to biomining

The origins of BiotaTec date back more than 15 years and are tied up with technological developments in genomics. The company was initially a genomics service provider, churning out next-generation sequencing data for customers eager to know what organisms were present in any sample. But as the cost of next-generation sequencing dropped and more scientists could run their samples in-house, BiotaTec decided in 2015 to pivot to biomining.

The company, with Sipp Kulli at its helm, rebranded and, in a way, relaunched. Sipp Kulli, who is also director of the Geological Survey of Estonia, brought Jõers, a biochemist from the University of Tartu, on board as CSO in 2020.

The company started to gather some good grant money in recent years, too, including a European Horizon 2020 grant in 2017 to support work on producing methane gas and metallic elements from black shale waste deposits and a European Innovation Council €2.3 million accelerator grant in 2020 to develop its technology for use with different types of ores and wastes. In October 2022, the Estonian Business and Innovation Agency awarded the company about €2 million through its applied research program to support the use of its bioleaching technology to isolate precious metals from electronic waste and convert them into nanometallic particles.

This funding has enabled BiotaTec to scale, bringing on new employees and expanding its facility. But optimally, the firm would like to demonstrate the use of its technology and then export it to partners, who could apply it at the point of need, such as at mining waste sites in Estonia, or ore deposits in Greenland, or the phosphogypsum deposits sitting everywhere.

“With industrial waste and ores, we are talking about tens of millions of tons at the minimum,” commented Jõers. “This amount of waste cannot be shipped.”

Ambitious goals

BiotaTec is therefore focused on taking the company to this next stage of technology transfer. Its internal goal is to demonstrate proof of principle at an industrial scale with a partner by next year. This will be followed by installing a mobile processing facility at the partners’ industrial sites. Then, the technology is licensed for the commercial production of critical metals.

The company is also currently courting investors, Sipp Kulli mentioned.

The technology has caught the attention of industry insiders. David O’Brock, the commercial director of REEtec, a producer of high-quality rare earth elements, and former CEO of NPM Silmet, a rare earth and rare metals chemical company based in northeast Estonia, said that bioleaching is becoming more attractive as producers aspire to greater efficiency and reusing existing natural resources.

“There are currently massive phosphogypsum piles scattered around the world that contain elements which are increasingly in demand,” O’Brock said in a separate interview. “The lanthanides contained in the piles, while present at very small concentrations [of less than 1 per cent] can be taken out efficiently using the organisms created by BiotaTec,” he said. “Their technology can be used in current production processes as well as historical wastes.”

O’Brock also noted that at its Tartu facility, the company has showcased its approach’s technological and economic feasibility, not only for the selective extraction of rare earths but also gold from electronic wastes.

“Electronic wastes can be loaded into a reactor, and within hours, the gold contained is eaten, and the remaining electronics can continue to be processed for their other valuable components,” O’Brock said. “The gold is then recovered in the form of nanogold, which can be used in medicine for diagnostics or industry applications.

While the company is developing groundbreaking technology, Sipp Kulli credited the ingenuity that Estonians honed during the Soviet period, when they had to make do with very little, as a catalyst. “In a way, it’s that old Soviet mindset,” she said. “In Estonia, we had an expression, sittast saia tegema, which literally means, ‘making bread out of crap.’ That is exactly what we are trying to do, to extract the value from old CO2 wastes, low-grade ores, and industrial wastes.”

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