Bioleaching and Biomining for Metals

Detailed overview of innovation with sample startups and prominent university research

What it is

Bioleaching and biomining are innovative, environmentally friendly techniques for extracting metals from ores and mine tailings, utilizing microorganisms instead of harsh chemicals. These biological processes leverage the natural abilities of certain bacteria and fungi to dissolve and liberate metals, offering a more sustainable and often more cost-effective alternative to traditional mining practices.

Impact on climate action

Bioleaching and biomining harness microbial activity to extract metals from ores, significantly reducing the carbon footprint of metal extraction. By minimizing energy-intensive processes like smelting, this innovation cuts emissions, promoting sustainable mining practices. It fosters a crucial shift towards low-carbon metals, pivotal for mitigating climate change and preserving ecosystems.


  • Microorganisms as Metal Solubilizers: Certain microorganisms, particularly extremophiles (microbes thriving in extreme environments) possess the ability to oxidize metal sulfides in ores, releasing the metals into solution.
  • Bioleaching: In this process, microorganisms are used to directly leach metals from low-grade ores, mine tailings, or even electronic waste. The microbes create an acidic environment that dissolves the metals, making them easier to extract.
  • Biomining: This broader approach encompasses bioleaching and other microbial processes to facilitate metal extraction. For instance, some bacteria can selectively accumulate specific metals, enabling bio-recovery from dilute solutions.
  • Bioremediation: Biomining processes can also contribute to environmental remediation by removing heavy metals and other contaminants from mine tailings and contaminated soil, offering a sustainable solution for mitigating environmental damage.

TRL : Varies depending on the specific application and metal, generally 6-8.

Prominent Innovation themes

  • Genetic Engineering of Microorganisms: Researchers are using genetic engineering to enhance the efficiency and selectivity of microorganisms involved in bioleaching and biomining processes. This can involve creating microbes that tolerate higher metal concentrations, operate at lower pH levels, or target specific metals with higher efficiency.
  • Bioreactor Design and Optimization: Developing efficient bioreactors for bioleaching and biomining is crucial for scaling up the process and achieving optimal performance. This involves optimizing factors such as temperature, aeration, nutrient supply, and microbial community composition.
  • Integration with Other Technologies: Combining bioleaching and biomining with other technologies, such as electrochemistry and membrane separation, can enhance metal recovery and overall process efficiency.

Other Innovation Subthemes

  • Extremophile Microbial Metallurgy
  • Direct Metal Leaching by Microorganisms
  • Selective Metal Accumulation by Bacteria
  • Environmental Remediation Through Biomining
  • pH-Tailored Microbial Metal Extraction
  • Genetic Optimization of Metal-Extracting Microbes
  • Efficient Bioreactor Engineering
  • Temperature-Controlled Biomining Systems
  • Aeration Optimization in Bioreactors
  • Nutrient Management for Microbial Metallurgy
  • Microbial Community Dynamics in Bioreactors
  • Synergistic Electrochemical Metal Recovery
  • Sustainable Metal Recovery from Electronic Waste
  • Metal Recycling Through Bioleaching
  • Eco-Friendly Mining Technologies

Sample Global Startups and Companies

  • BacTech Environmental (Canada):
    • Technology Focus: BacTech Environmental focuses on using bioleaching technology to extract metals from complex ores and mine tailings. Bioleaching involves using microorganisms to oxidize metal compounds, making them easier to extract.
    • Uniqueness: BacTech Environmental stands out for its innovative approach to environmental remediation through bioleaching. By harnessing the power of microorganisms, they can recover valuable metals while simultaneously remediating contaminated sites.
    • End-User Segments: Their solutions are relevant to the mining industry, particularly for companies dealing with complex ores and mine tailings. Additionally, their environmental remediation capabilities make them attractive to stakeholders concerned with sustainable mining practices and environmental cleanup efforts.
  • BioSigma (USA):
    • Technology Focus: BioSigma specializes in biomining, which involves using microorganisms to extract metals from ores. They may leverage biotechnology and bioinformatics to optimize biomining processes and improve metal recovery rates.
    • Uniqueness: BioSigma’s expertise lies in the development of novel microbial strains and bioprocessing techniques tailored for efficient metal extraction. Their solutions may offer higher yields and lower environmental impact compared to traditional mining methods.
    • End-User Segments: Their target segments include mining companies seeking innovative and sustainable approaches to mineral extraction. Additionally, industries reliant on critical metals, such as electronics and renewable energy, may benefit from BioSigma’s biomining solutions.
  • Mintek (South Africa):
    • Technology Focus: Mintek is a minerals processing and metallurgical research organization that likely specializes in bioleaching and biomining technologies. They may offer consulting services, research, and development support to the mining industry.
    • Uniqueness: Mintek’s uniqueness lies in its deep expertise in minerals processing and metallurgy, allowing them to develop customized bioleaching and biomining solutions tailored to specific ore types and processing conditions.
    • End-User Segments: Their services are relevant to mining companies worldwide, especially those looking to optimize mineral recovery, reduce processing costs, and minimize environmental impact. Government agencies and research institutions may also engage Mintek for technical expertise and collaborative R&D initiatives.

Sample Research At Top-Tier Universities

  • University of British Columbia (UBC):
    • Technology Enhancements: UBC researchers are pioneering the use of bioleaching and biomining techniques to extract metals from low-grade ores with reduced environmental impact. They are developing biohydrometallurgical processes that utilize microorganisms to solubilize metals from ores, enhancing metal recovery rates and reducing energy consumption compared to traditional mining methods.
    • Uniqueness of Research: UBC’s approach involves the discovery and optimization of novel microbial strains capable of efficiently leaching metals from ores under low-carbon conditions. They are also investigating the use of biocompatible additives and organic solvents to enhance metal recovery and minimize the environmental footprint of the extraction process.
    • End-use Applications: The bioleaching and biomining technologies developed at UBC have applications in the mining, metallurgy, and recycling industries. By unlocking metals from previously uneconomic ores and waste materials, these technologies contribute to the sustainable supply of critical metals for manufacturing electronics, renewable energy systems, and other high-tech applications.
  • University of Queensland (Australia):
    • Technology Enhancements: Researchers at the University of Queensland are advancing bioleaching and biomining technologies through innovative reactor designs and process optimization strategies. They are developing bioreactor systems that provide optimal conditions for microbial activity and metal solubilization, maximizing metal recovery rates while minimizing operational costs and environmental impacts.
    • Uniqueness of Research: The University of Queensland’s research integrates principles of microbiology, chemical engineering, and materials science to design bioleaching and biomining processes tailored to specific ore types and environmental conditions. They are also exploring the potential of genetically engineered microorganisms to enhance metal extraction efficiency and selectivity.
    • End-use Applications: The bioleaching and biomining technologies developed at the University of Queensland have broad applications in the mining, minerals processing, and environmental remediation sectors. By replacing conventional mineral processing techniques with sustainable bio-based alternatives, these technologies contribute to the transition towards a low-carbon and circular economy.
  • University of Exeter (UK):
    • Technology Enhancements: University of Exeter researchers are pioneering the development of bioleaching and biomining technologies for recovering metals from urban mining sources such as electronic waste and industrial residues. They are optimizing microbial consortia and bioreactor systems capable of efficiently extracting valuable metals from complex and heterogeneous feedstocks.
    • Uniqueness of Research: The University of Exeter’s research focuses on closing the loop in the metal supply chain by developing integrated bioleaching and biomining processes for recycling end-of-life products and recovering metals from secondary sources. They are also investigating the potential synergies between bioleaching and other sustainable metal recovery technologies such as electrochemical deposition and ion exchange.
    • End-use Applications: The bioleaching and biomining technologies developed at the University of Exeter have applications in urban mining, waste management, and resource recovery industries. By valorizing metal-rich waste streams and reducing the reliance on virgin ore mining, these technologies contribute to the circular economy goals and mitigate the environmental impacts associated with metal production and consumption.

commercial_img Commercial Implementation

Bioleaching and biomining are already being implemented commercially in various locations around the world. BacTech Environmental operates commercial-scale bioleaching facilities for metal recovery, and Mintek has worked with several mining companies to implement biomining solutions. The adoption of these technologies is increasing as the mining industry seeks more sustainable and cost-effective methods for metal extraction.