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Scientists create 'super soldier' bio-technology for mining industry

Sudbury company up for $1M prize in #DisruptMining competition
Bio-Mine Ltd. cofounder Kurtis Vanwallegham takes readings from one of the company's experiments in dynamic bio-technology for the mining industry. Photo by Arron Pickard

A bio-technology company focused on eliminating the environmental footprint of mining operations around the world is vying for a million dollar prize this weekend.

Sudbury-based Bio-Mine Ltd. is one of five finalists in Goldcorp Inc. and Integra Gold Corp.'s #DisruptMining competition. It's a “Shark-Tank” style competition that takes place March 5 during the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) convention in Toronto.

Bio-Mine Ltd. is using bio-intelligent organisms that can target metal recovery and remediation efforts in the mining industry. The company is about to cross the threshold from static bio mining into dynamic bio mining, said co-founder and CEO Kurtis Vanwallegham.

“Up to this point, bio mining has been saturated with 30 or 40 different bacteria species of what I call 'first generation' or static,” Vanwallegham said. “They are very single-minded organisms. They eat only one type of rock and perform one function in very specific environments. The temperature, the pH levels, the carbon dioxide and oxygen levels have to be perfect. If they are not, the organism dies.”

Bio-Mine Ltd. has developed what Vanwallegham calls the “super soldier” of bio mining. It's a suite of more powerful organisms than what is currently being used, and they are able to be programmed.

“They adapt to all different environments with all types of minerology,” Vanwallegham said. 

“We've also found out they are able to change their internal metabolism, and mutate into their own strain dedicated to the environment they are about to go into. They can be programmed for certain metals, certain toxins and certain poisons. For the mining industry, this opens an whole new frontier for research and development to drive the industry toward the ultimate goal of a zero-footprint operation.”

The bio-technology was discovered 13 years ago by Dr. Vasu Appanna, a professor and former Dean of Science and Engineering at Laurentian University.

Together, Appanna and Vanwallegham have a vision of building a six-story glass building filled with the brightest minds in bio science and microbiology. Those lofty goals won't happen for many years, though, but if Bio-Mine Ltd. is able to win the $1 million, it would jump their plans forward a few years.

“Unfortunately, as fantastic and revolutionary as this is for the mining industry, the type of research and system we're trying to set up is quite expensive,” he said. 

“We're using equipment to analyze the mitochondria of cells in these organisms, and that isn't bought in a hardware store. This money would go a long way in allowing us to get that equipment, and to launch is into research and development.”

Vanwallegham said he hadn't planned on being a part of #DisruptMining, because the company already has a lot on its plate, but people kept emailing him about it and telling him he should apply for the competition and its big-money prize.

“When I set out to do it, I thought, yeah, the money would be great, but the real value to me would be having 400 people in one room (at PDAC) who will learn about Bio-Mine Ltd. It would take me two years to reach that many people otherwise.”

Vanwallegham said while he doesn't have an expectations, he is going there to win.

“It's still a little surreal,” he said. “My phone hasn't stopped ringing. We were even featured in the North Korea Times. 

“I think we have a good chance of winning, because we're the only one in the environmental category. I think that will give us a definite advantage, because I believe environmental awareness is the single greatest hurdle for mining.”

Vanwallegham will be given five minutes to pitch Bio-Mine Ltd. and its product. He readily admits whittling down the information he needs to provide into a five-minute presentation has been a huge challenge.

“I've been working on it for three weeks and I still don't have it perfected two days before the competition,” he said. 

Deciding the fate of the five finalists will be David Harquail, CEO, Franco-Nevada Corporation, Robert Herjavec, CEO, Herjavec Group and judge on ABC Television Network's “Shark Tank,” Rob McEwen, chairman and CEO, McEwen Mining; Todd White, COO, Goldcorp Inc. and Bernadette Wightman, president, Cisco Canada.


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Arron Pickard

About the Author: Arron Pickard

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