Cornwall could lead the way in developing green techniques to help European mining companies extract more scarce and valuable metals and significantly reduce their environmental impact.

By using bacteria to recover metals from mine by-products, Europe could move towards a more sustainable treatment of ores and mine waste to provide an alternative supply of metals such as copper, zinc, nickel and gold. The application of 'biomining' could help companies reduce hazardous waste and produce more valuable metals, many of which are imported because they are scarce in Europe. 

Research into this technique led by Dr Chris Bryan of the University of Exeter's Environment and Sustainability Institute (ESI) in Penryn, is attracting interest from mining companies operating in Europe.

As well as making mines more productive, biomining can also be used to clean up sites, which are often left with traces of dangerous heavy metals that present a hazard to humans and wildlife. This means that companies could revisit historic mine wastes with abandoned low grade mineral deposits, some of which have been present for hundreds of years. 

Dr David Dew, of Dewality Consultants Limited, based near Truro, is providing his expertise to help Dr Bryan develop a centre of excellence for biomining at the ESI. Dr Dew has worked for a major mining company for over 20 years in the development of biomining technology for the treatment of ores and concentrates. 

Dr Paul Norris, a leading researcher in the field of biomining microbiology, has relocated to Cornwall from the University of Warwick and joined the ESI as an honorary research associate to expand the ESI's biomining research and development capability. 

From the ESI laboratory, the team is testing the ability of strains of algae and cultures of microbes isolated from Cornish mine wastes, including Wheal Jane and Wheal Maid, to recover metals, while establishing links with European mining companies to get samples to test the technique. 

Dr Bryan said: “Wherever you have mining, you have mining waste, which can present a hazard for hundreds of years. While there are examples of biomining across the world, it is hardly used in Europe. We believe there is a real opportunity for Cornwall, with its fascinating history of mining and innovation, to develop and promote this technique.”

Dr Dew added: “Biomining gives mining companies the opportunity to get value from something that would otherwise be disposed of as waste. European mines are facing a growing number of challenges, chief of which include scarcity of viable resources and compliance with environmental legislation, which could make biomining attractive as a process option to increase metal recovery.”