Clean energy technologies have put society and the mining industry at a crossroads.
Demand is increasing rapidly for the minerals and metals that are the foundation for renewable energy generation, storage and broader use. At the same time, this resource development must happen responsibly – protecting the health and safety of nearby communities and bodies of water, embracing decarbonization and reducing the environmental risks associated with tailings and other waste streams.
“In the current century, it’s harder and harder to get at big mineral deposits easily – the ones that are easy to reach have already been accessed, and some strategic metals are widespread but in relatively low abundance,” says Dr. Steven Hallam, a professor in UBC’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology. “So, the mining companies are faced with this dilemma: how do we build the mine of tomorrow, when we’re using 20th century methods to try to solve 21st century problems?
They’re looking for solutions that scale, that would allow them to lower their carbon footprint and have less of an environmental impact — while allowing them to effectively provide raw materials like rare earths, and other strategic metals for future energy supply and high technology. For example, our electric vehicle future is dependent on the ability to access strategic metals,” adds Hallam. “How can we do this in a sustainable way, so as not to offset the benefit of transitioning to EV use?”
Enter the Digital Technology Supercluster – which yesterday in partnership with industry and the federal government announced the Mining Microbiome Analysis Platform (MMAP) project. Through what is believed to be the largest investment in planned natural resource genomic sequencing in the history of the sector, MMAP will enable Canadian and international mining companies to implement sustainable mining practices on a global scale, by replacing energy and chemical-intense resource extraction methods and by improving mining site cleanup techniques. The LSI’s High Throughput Biology Facility (Biofactorial) and Biobank are providing crucial mine site sample processing and testing to support this massive sequencing effort.
21st Century Methods
Microbiome analysis aims to support leading environmental practices across the mining lifecycle. By replacing traditional mining extraction and mine site remediation technologies with targeted biomining solutions, the Mining Microbiome Analysis Platform (MMAP) project will over the next decade, see major Canadian mining companies, supported by the research, engineering, and consulting sectors, to accelerate progress towards sustainability.
Teck Resources Limited, a major natural resources company headquartered in British Columbia, in partnership with Rio Tinto, BGC Engineering, the Centre for Excellence in Mining Innovation (CEMI), Koonkie Canada, Genome BC, Allonnia Canada ULC, and the University of British Columbia, is creating the first integrative platform for collecting, storing, and analyzing the genomic data of water, soil and rock environments. The project also has the support of the BC Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation, as well as the Tahltan Central Government. A total of $16,627,189 with $12,636,695 invested by industry, and $3,990,494 co-invested through the Digital Supercluster’s Technology Leadership Program has launched MMAP.
Over the next two years, a team led by Dr. Hallam and Dr. Susan Baldwin, a professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, along with Biofactorial Manager Dr. Tom Pfeifer and Biobank Manager Leslie-Anne Stavroff, will oversee sample archiving, processing and extraction of DNA from more than 15,000 mining site samples. That DNA will be used to design, build and test microbial biotechnologies that can replace energy- and chemical-intensive methods used in the mining of minerals and metals, and be utilized for the remediation of mine sites. This genomic data will be sequenced and directly linked to geospatial data, climate data and chemical data to support global breakthroughs in biomining solutions for natural resource extraction and green site remediation.
“Our role in Biofactorial is taking the water, soil, and rocks from the mining sites and processing that in a way that we can get a sequence that can be forwarded on to the Digital Supercluster,” explains Dr. Pfeifer. “The bioinformatics database they’re creating – mapped to all the geotechnical specifications related to that sample, as well as the microbiome – is a huge undertaking in the digital world.”
Not a New Concept, but at Scale
MMAP is a powerful amplification of previous efforts, according to Dr. Baldwin, who started a research program looking at how to use microorganisms to remediate mining sites after arriving at UBC 25 years ago. “We have a lot of genomic data from mine sites already,” says Dr. Baldwin. Genome BC, and other Canadian initiatives have pursued related work, “but the big missing thing is, the methods are different for different people. We need to standardize the data, and make it accessible. A very big part of what we’re building is a Data Commons, with data analytics. The software being built by BCG Engineering and Koonkie is going to enable the members of the consortium to interrogate the patterns and associations between certain types of microorganisms and certain types of environments. That’s going to be brand new – that really has not been provided to the industry, or to the world before.”
Many of the interesting microorganisms with biotech potential have not yet been cultivated. Dr. Hallam — in collaboration with Bio! and consortium member Allonia — has the capability to move this synthetic biology piece forward by taking chassis organisms and growing or giving them the potential to deliver mining applications.
“Microbes and mining have a history together,” says Hallam. But the leading industry partners in MMAP, Teck and Rio Tinto, “both realized there’s a lot more that can be done to build the mine of tomorrow.”
The initial two-year project timeline is just the beginning of a planned long-term venture. “The idea is that it will grow,” adds Baldwin. “A big part of MMAP is spreading the word to other industry members, and bringing in other industry partners. We wanted to be the glue – a strong team that brings researchers together and breaks down silos at UBC, so we can create a community of researchers working on very large, challenging, wicked problems with large impacts and sustainable funding. Our vision is that this will endure and grow, making UBC the place where people come to do this work.”