Toronto company looks to extract billions in value from Sudbury mine waste
BacTech estimates there is $27 billion worth of nickel in Greater Sudbury's mine waste
A Toronto-based environmental technology company is working on a pilot project in Sudbury to separate valuable minerals from mine waste with bacteria.
BacTech Environmental Corporation plans to have its pilot plant in Sudbury operational by July, and will use a process called bioleaching to extract minerals like nickel and cobalt from mine tailings. Tailings are the waste material that's left over after minerals are extracted from a mine.
The company estimates that over 100 years of mining, $27 billion worth of nickel sits in Greater Sudbury's large tailings areas. Until recently, it was not economically viable to extract the valuable material.
But with new bioleaching technology, BacTech hopes to prove it can be done at a large scale, and make economic sense.
To extract the metals they take tailings rock called concentrate and put it in large stainless steel tanks. Over a six-day period, bacteria in the tanks separate the valuable metals from the rock.
"They literally attack it," said BacTech CEO Ross Orr.
"If you think of a brick wall, they are going after the mortar and they're breaking down that mortar and eventually everything comes crashing down."
Last May the federal government set up a 10.9 million fund to support projects to develop Canada's critical mineral value chains. BacTech has applied to receive around $100,000 to help support its pilot project.
High demand for electric vehicles, and the batteries that power them, has increased the value of minerals like nickel and cobalt, and made projects to extract them from tailings even more viable.
Orr said one advantage with their technology is that it can be scaled up to any size, because each tank works separately from the others.
He said there are between 75 and 100 million tonnes of concentrate in Greater Sudbury tailings. If they could process 1,000 tonnes per day, it would still take 30 years to extract all the usable minerals from that concentrate.
"Technology evolves," he said. "Eventually, whether it's us or somebody else, will come up with a better mousetrap that allows more volume to be pushed through end to end to solve the problem quicker."
To lead the pilot project in Sudbury BacTech has enlisted Nadia Mykytczuk, the interim president and CEO of mining research facility MIRARCO and interim executive director of the Goodman School of Mines at Laurentian University.
Mykytczuk is an expert in bioremediation and has studied the diverse bacteria that can separate metals from rock.
"We have a diversity of lifeforms on this planet," she told CBC News. "These bacteria actually evolved to eat iron and sulphur. They can break down the minerals like pyrite and pyrrhotite that actually carry metals like nickel, copper and cobalt."
- A previous version of this story said BacTech was receiving a $10.9 million grant from the federal government. They are applying for a smaller amount from that available funding.Jun 08, 2022 11:59 AM ET
With files from Casey Stranges and Markus Schwabe