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Discover: Meet the Sudbury scientist who feeds minerals to microbes

One-on-one with Dr. Mike: A Q&A with microbiologist Dr. Nadia Mykytczuk
Dr. Nadia Mykytczuk. (Supplied)

As part of’s ongoing Discover Series, Dr. Mike Commito, Director of Applied Research & Innovation at Cambrian College, who is often referred to simply as Dr. Mike on campus, is sitting down with researchers and entrepreneurs in Sudbury to spotlight the innovative work they’re doing in our community and beyond.

This week, Dr. Mike had the chance to catch up with Dr. Nadia Mykytczuk on the shores of Ramsey Lake at the Vale Living with Lakes Centre at Laurentian University. Dr. Mykytczuk is a microbiologist who studies how bacteria live and adapt to extreme environments. She holds an Industrial Research Chair in Biomining, Bioremediation and Science Communication at Laurentian University. 

When she’s not teaching, Dr. Mykytczuk spends most of her time investigating how bacteria can be used in the mining process. Based on her research, Dr. Myktytczuk believes there is a great opportunity for the mining industry in Canada not only to deploy bacteria in remediation efforts to break down tailings and minimize mine waste, but also to utilize this biomining technology as a catalyst during the extraction process. 

During the course of their conversation, Dr. Mike and Dr. Mykytczuk talked about her research, the importance of science communication, and how biomining could be the next chapter in Sudbury’s mining environment story. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Mike Commito: You weren’t always an environmental microbiologist: where are you from and how did you get here? 

Nadia Mykytczuk: I’ve been asked that question a few times in the last month when I was travelling to international conferences. I present myself as a Sudburian even though I’ve only been here since 2005. 

I’m originally from Ottawa. When I grew up, environmental issues were always front and centre in my family, so I got an interest in the environment. I ended up doing my undergrad at Carleton University in environmental science and for a lot of weird and personal academic reasons you end up applying to different places and Sudbury sent me a really nice offer for a Masters. I ended up here and within a year already upgraded to my PhD. 

I was really taken by the Sudbury story and realized that all those places I had read about in textbooks, that were these environmental disasters, I was actually living in one. It took a little while to connect what Sudbury looks like now to what had actually happened. So I found myself kind of living my dream job in that I got to study something that was an industrial landscape, which I’ve always been fascinated by, and then find ways to fix it. 

You hold an Industrial Research Chair in Biomining, Bioremediation and Science Communication at Laurentian University. Can you explain what that position is? 

NM: That’s a fun question because I recently had my kids ask me what I actually do at the university because they think of scientists as really cartoon-like characters with lab coats and white hair running around playing in the lab. Whereas the average person’s idea of a scientist isn’t actually that far off. What I do as a researcher in a university is similar to other professors. I teach courses but most of my time, more than half of my time, is spent doing research. By being an industrial research chair, that research is actually focused on applied questions, meaning these are applied challenges that the industry has, rather than discovery-based research or other questions that are hypothesis-driven. I’m really looking at solving problems that are current. 

A significant part of your portfolio is focused on biomining. Sudbury is a mining town, but biomining is not something that most people are familiar with. Can you talk about what biomining is? 

NM: I’m an environmental microbiologist, which means I study bacteria in environments. In particular I became interested in bacteria that lived in extreme environments. We define extreme environments as any environment that makes it hard for life, as we know it, to live. So if you’re a human or a plant or an insect, these are conditions that would prevent most of those things from living happily. 

Mining environments are high in metals, and in Sudbury they’re very acidic. They present some of these barriers and they actually host very cool microbes, whole communities of microbes that are adapted to these conditions. In mining environments, we actually have the opportunity to use these types of adapted microbes to actually modify and process that material, and that’s what we call biomining: using bacteria instead of a smelter as a catalyst to break down these materials and extract some of the metals that are left over. 

So how can we use biomining technology in the mining industry? 

NM: You have two opportunities. The sulphide mine waste that we typically have in Sudbury has a lot of iron and sulphur in them and that causes acid mine drainage when those materials are exposed to oxygen and water. And that’s a huge problem and it costs mining companies and the government millions to billions of dollars in cleanup costs. On the one hand, we could look at this as a problem of just stopping acid mine drainage and we can develop a lot of biological techniques and technologies that could suppress that process and prevent acid mine drainage from forming. 

On the other hand, if you take the biomining approach you can accelerate the process that causes acid mine drainage, but at the same time, by accelerating the process, you’re releasing a lot of the iron, a lot of the sulphur, and any metals that remain. You can actually separate those out and you can deal with the iron and sulphur precipitated into a solid form and prevent it from causing acid mine drainage in the long-term, and then also extract the metals that can help pay for that cleanup. 

Is biomining a new process to the industry? 

NM: This is an interesting question from Canada’s point of view. We have a really strong mineral resource sector and we are leaders in mining technology all over the world and yet biomining technology is not new, and it’s something that’s been around for plus or minus 40 years. Many other countries around the world regularly employ this technology to process ore, not just mine waste, to extract different types of metals. It’s not something that’s currently in practice in Canada. I think the timing is really good right now. Canada is really having to look at its mineral resource sector and address the history and liabilities we have from several periods of booming mining activity and a lot of mines that closed before we had good regulations and good closure planning. 

Which countries are leading the charge when it comes to biomining? 

NM: The best examples you can look to are in Latin America. In Chile, over 90 per cent of their copper is extracted through heap bioleaching. So these are operations that have millions of tons of material being catalyzed through biological processes to extract the metal from ore. You’ve got lots of examples in South Africa, the Middle East, China, Australia, where biomining has been used to extract a large set of base metals and precious metals as well. 

You mentioned heap leaching. Can you explain the difference between heap leaching and the type of leaching you do in the laboratory? 

NM: As the name implies, if you’ve got a heap you’ve really just got a pile of ore or mine waste that’s been graded to allow for oxygen or what you’re using to leach, which is usually a liquid mixture of bacteria, that is percolated through the mound of material. Any leachate that’s coming out of the bottom is collected and is usually a concentrated solution that can be pumped away and extracted through something like electrowinning. Tank bioleaching uses large tanks that can be controlled for the amount of oxygen, the temperature and the stirring of that material. By stirring it, you’re actually processing the material a lot faster. On the one hand, heap bioleaching you could have several weeks or months before all the material has been leached. [By contrast] you’re looking at a handful of days for the material to go through a reactor and be completely processed and then you put in a new batch. 

Are there unique microbial cultures for different types of metals and mine waste?  

NM: What most people don’t realize is that even in just a handful of soil from your garden you could have hundreds of thousands of unique microbial organisms. Just like in your gut, there are thousands of organisms doing completely different things. So no two mine waste piles are the same. Every mineral, every condition, the Ph, the climate that those materials are sitting in are all going to select for particular bacteria. When we look at biomining technologies, you sort of have to find which community of organisms is actually going to be really good for this particular material. The approach is the same, but the outcome and whose doing the work might be different depending on the material you’re working with. 

You mentioned how Chile uses biomining as part of their extractive process. Do you foresee Canada using the technology in the same way or will the focus here be on remediation? 

NM: I think we have the opportunity to do both. We have a lot of liabilities in terms of abandoned mine sites across Canada and even just tailing deposits at active mine sites that just have really low grades of residual metals that aren’t worth being transported and processed and thrown into a smelter again, and could actually benefit from a cheaper process like biomining. I think if you look at the ways biomining has been done around the world, whether it’s through an open system like heap bioleaching or more controlled system like tank or reactor bioleaching, we could apply both in Canada. 

Some of the research you do here in Sudbury is in collaboration with an industry partner, and Cambrian College. Can you talk about that partnership and how it has benefited our community? 

NM: It’s been a really great productive relationship, I think. Each institution, whether you’re a university or college, they have different mandates and they provide different training paths for students. The students that have been trained through the university side have been focused on the fundamental questions within the process. While we’re also looking to develop a technology, we’re also looking to understand the microbes and the communities and that’s very well-suited to a student doing their masters or PhD, let’s say. But then you need someone who has the know-how and the practical and tactical skills to design systems and troubleshoot those systems and design systems from scratch sometimes. For that, Cambrian students have been amazingly suited to come in and be handed a project and an idea. In fact, it was a diagram poorly scratched on a piece of paper that students were able to take and run with, and run a fully functioning test facility to do this. This relationship has allowed us to capitalize on different skill sets that trainees have in both college and university, and bring together an excellent team that, if we were working in a company, we’d have to hire several different experts to do this. The main engine to do this has been students at both institutions. 

A lot of what we do in research is all publicly funded. We are accountable to taxpayers and Canadians that what we are doing has value and I think that by showing we can work with industry and not just to solve an industry’s problem and maybe we develop something that never has any benefit beyond that one company, what we’re trying to do is train people with different skillsets that can then be hired by the industry, or go on and create their own companies and do similar things. I think what we can really demonstrate with this type or project is that by doing one thing, in this particular biomining project, is actually achieving a lot of different goals, such as training people in skills that don’t exist, developing a whole new sector. We’re delivering things to industry that they don’t have the capacity to do themselves, and all of this by leveraging taxpayers’ dollars to have benefit to Canadians and communities. 

Outside of bioremediation and biomining, science communication is part of your portfolio at Laurentian. How important is science communication today, especially when we live in a world where people continue to deny scientifically-proven phenomena such as climate change?  

NM: We’re living in a really crazy time where any one of us can get stuck on a Twitter feed on any given day can shake their head and wonder how can we still be having debates about climate change that have more consensus than any other scientific issue right now. The discourse around it is terrifying. On any given day, most scientists have to take their anxiety down a notch because it’s a really crazy time that we’re living in. From a scientist’s point of view, you could say we’re at fault in that we were not trained to communicate what we do very clearly. We get stuck in our silos and most of what we were taught to publish stays in a scientific field that almost nobody reads. 

Have you seen a shift in the emphasis on science communication since you were in graduate school? 

NM: It’s one of those things you lament when you start realizing you’re getting older and you were never taught to do something that is now almost requested on a daily basis. Whether it’s media or the public or just conversations with your neighbours. Science communication comes up every single day. 

You need to take complex concepts and be able to convey them and engage someone about them. I’ve been lucky in that I had a lot of drama training back in high school and did a lot of public speaking, so I’m not afraid to get up in front of an audience, but how to speak to an audience, and different audiences, is a skill that most scientists are not being trained with. Thankfully now through places like Laurentian that have a science communication program, most scientists realize that it’s not just about producing a thesis or a research paper at the end of it, you really need to be able to tell people in an elevator what you do. And if you can’t do that effectively in a few minutes, you’re not learning how to communicate your science. I think it’s an essential part of what we do and how we train people today. 

One of the courses you teach at Laurentian is about the Sudbury story and how the community went from a moonscape to an environmental success story. What could students expect to learn in that class?

NM: Six years ago I was asked by some of the researchers here who were part of the Sudbury regreening program to update how we tell the story, and to tell a science communication piece around the Sudbury story. I worked with a very small team to produce a high-level documentary style course on the lessons from the Sudbury story. I was never trained in making movies or documentaries or being a David Suzuki-type character and narrating the entire story. 

It took us five years to capture the history of mining in Sudbury, how we became a unit of pollution at the height of sulphur dioxide emissions in the ‘60s and ‘70s, how we then moved to solve acid rain and how the Sudbury dataset was extremely important in negotiating the Acid Rain Accord between Canada and the United States. To then moving through what is perhaps the best known part of the story, which is Sudbury’s regreening. It’s something that students now, born in the ‘90s, don’t realize: that one generation earlier we lived in what was known as the moonscape. But the story doesn’t stop there. I continue the course with the work we do here at the Living with Lakes Centre and restoring 330 lakes in the Sudbury area and further, with the 7,000 lakes that were impacted by Sudbury’ emissions. And then perhaps dealing with something that isn’t a shiny star in Sudbury is that we still have a huge legacy of mine waste impacts, and where our technology, including the research I do, is trying to help industry overcome a lot of those challenges. 

The whole course wraps up with the idea that this is one of the few positive environmental models of restoration in the world. We’re really good at destroying landscapes. We don’t have very many examples of how we fix them and the fact that Sudbury has been able to do this over a 40-year period by engaging the Sudbury community, academia and government to create a working example of how any industrial impacted [area], whether it’s mining or otherwise, could actually restore their landscape and create a vibrant and sustainable community, and also have industry as part of it. I now very excitedly teach the Sudbury story here, but also take that internationally. We’ve translated it into Spanish. We have a lot of communities in Latin America that are looking to do what Sudbury has done. 

Do you think biomining will be a chapter in the Sudbury story? 

NM: It already is. I’ve incorporated it into the course as part of the ongoing research that Sudbury could be a leader in. I think that we’re well-positioned here in Sudbury because our mine waste is in our backyard. We can demonstrate with the help of an active industry what starts out as bench research in a university or a college lab can become a full-scale industrial process. I know that I’m going to work very hard to make sure that we continue this research and that Sudbury can be a leader for Canada in showing that this is viable. 

Mike Commito is the Director of Applied Research & Innovation at Cambrian College.