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Clever new asteroid-mining method uses mineral-munching microbes, not machinery

There are plenty of things that need to come together to allow humans to establish a more permanent presence in space — and a recent experiment carried out on the International Space Station (ISS) represents an important milestone. Charles Cockell, professor of astrobiology at the U.K.’s University of Edinburgh, and colleagues have successfully demonstrated the first extraction of an economically important group of elements — the rare earth elements used in everything from mobile phones to magnets — in space. This could lay the groundwork, Cockell told Digital Trends, for “biomining” on asteroids for a wide range of purposes.

“It’s really a proof of concept, but it shows that biomining is just one way in which we could use microorganisms to help us establish a permanent human presence in space, in addition to other bioindustrial processes like making food and oxygen,” Cockell said.

On Earth, microorganisms are used to mine important elements from rocks. This demonstration was intended to see whether the same principle would work in the microgravity environment of the ISS and simulated Mars gravity using basaltic rock and a purposely designed centrifugal biomining reactor. Three microbes were tested for effectiveness at leaching the elements, with one called Sphingomonas desiccabilis proving as effective in space as it is on Earth.

“We sent 36 miniature biomining reactors to the International Space Station … in August last year,” Cockell explained. These were flown aboard a Space X Falcon 9 rocket on Commercial Resupply Mission 18.

As Cockell notes, it’s still early stages for the research. “The next stages are to use new microbes and more advanced reactors to take us closer to the potential for human industry and mining beyond Earth,” he said.

However, given the increased attention being paid to the burgeoning field of asteroid mining, this is important work. While no shortage of experts (and startups) have focused on the concept of extracting valuable materials from asteroids to bring back home to Earth, it seems that other asteroid materials could help ensure that humankind can stay out in space for considerably longer.

A paper describing the work, titled “Space station biomining experiment demonstrates rare earth element extraction in microgravity and Mars gravity,” was recently published in the journal Nature Communications.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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