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Mining Week: Why clean up mine waste when you can feed it to bugs?

Microbes can also extract metals that were missed in traditional processing, says Nadia Mykytczuk
Nadia Mykytczuk speaks about her work in biotechnology and bioremediation of mine sites and how it is becoming a emerging sector in the mining industry of Sudbury at the MMTS Business Luncheon on April 12.

Nearly two centuries of mining in northeastern Ontario has left its mark with waste from thousands of mines.

But Nadia Mykytczuk said that waste can be turned into another mining opportunity and at the same time clean up the dirtier parts of the industry's legacy.

Mykytczuk, a microbiologist, was the guest speaker at the kickoff luncheon for Modern Mining and Technology Sudbury Week (MMTS), hosted by the Greater Sudbury Development Corporation, on April 12.

An audience of 90 listened to her presentation about the history of biotechnology in mining and its future, of which, she said, Sudbury is in a perfect position to be a hub.

She is the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation industrial research chair in biomining, bioremediation and science communication at the Vale Living with Lakes Centre, as well as an assistant professor at the School of the Environment at Laurentian University.

Not long ago, the perception by scientists was that Sudbury was an ecological dead zone permanently scarred by nearly 130 years of mining.

But Mykytczuk said there are many like herself that look at the pits and tailings ponds as ecosystems that hold the key to returning the land to its natural state.

“There were many visionaries that looked at that and said, it doesn't have to be this way,” she said. “We can innovate and find solutions to what seem to be the darkest problems.”

After nearly 40 years, the Sudbury area is being re-greened and mining companies are adopting more sustainable practices. Much of that is being driven by costs and pressure.

There was a lot of uncertainty about using bioremediation in the mining industry, Mykytczuk said. But with increased pressure to make the entire mining process more environmentally friendly, companies can't be ignorant anymore.

Now it's a matter of catching up to solve old problems and prevent them in the future. Those innovations didn't cost jobs, rather it created more positions with the inception of a whole new industry sector in biotechnology.

The basis of this new sector is looking at the long-standing problems, known as “legacy issues,” and trying to find a way to, not only reduce those historical impacts on the environment and communities near them, but try to extract what valuable minerals may still be in the mine waste.

“There are literally billions of dollars sitting in mine wastes throughout Canada,” she said.

Mining, by its nature, creates a lot of waste, which is now unnecessary, she said.

In current mine environments, like tailings ponds and dams, she sees extreme environments with different kinds of life in them that have evolved to live and thrive.

A lot of those organisms create problems, like acidic materials, as they feed on materials. It is her job to try to understand that process and know those microbes are mining the environment for nutrients.

“If we can harness those organisms and make them work for us, they are effectively leaching the leftover metals that we didn't 100 per cent extract through our traditional processing,” she said.

Her research focuses on finding those microbes and apply them to mining. One example was the Long Lake mining project in Sudbury that she is working on.

There are adapted microbes that have evolved for more than 100 years to feed on the arsenic, making the gold more accessible.

They can look at harnessing those microbes and make them work for miners to extract the resources.

“This is established technology. Nature finds a way,” Mykytczuk said.

“This will help us clean up a site, make a little extra money, and reduce the liabilities to mining companies.”

These projects are at the experimental phase through small-scale projects. The process includes establishing a microbe's properties, understanding its abilities by studying its DNA and observing them in real time.

And in a few cases, finding a way to adapt them to the colder climate of Northern Ontario. 

There is enough interest in this sector that a Centre of Mine Waste Biotechnlogy is being created. Housed at the Coniston Industrial Park, it will link four key areas: water treatment, biomining, bioreactors, and soil and phyto treatment.

The facility will be an incubator to move biotechnology forward.

“You can't do this kind of research in a university lab, you need a dedicated facility to move the technology forward to scale it up to show it works beyond that proof of concept,” she said. This will also help form partnerships, beyond scientific research, with the industry to help commercialize this research faster.

Mykytczuk said she is involved in several projects around Northern Ontario, explaining every mine is unique. There will probably never be a one-size-fits-all solution for bioremediation and biomining, but they are building their knowledge base.