Turning the tide on groundwater contamination

Tiny microorganisms in waste rock may offer a low-cost solution to a giant problem and create access to uranium deposits previously too environmentally risky to reach. Turns out they enjoy eating sugary treats.

Companies decide to start the mining of a particular uranium deposit based on many factors. One major consideration for mining is the presence of environmentally impactful elements such as arsenic, nickel, and cobalt by-products known as tailings and waste rock.

These elements make mining a uranium deposit more costly as they require a proactive environmental plan before mining begins. Environmental planning must consider both the protection of the down-stream environment and potential impacts to human health. Technology to control the movement of waste elements into the environment can be costly and limit a company’s decision to proceed.

Arsenic and other heavy metals have long been known to impact the environment and human health. Prior to today’s strict environmental regulations, methods used to store tailings and waste by older mines frequently impacted the surrounding environment. In Canada, the estimated costs of remediation — reversing or stopping environmental damage — is in the millions of dollars a year. There have been few cost-effective options for cleaning up, eliminating, or completely preventing the problem — until recently.

A sticky solution proves beneficial

A partnership between Orano Canada — one of the country’s largest uranium producers for over 50 years — and the University of Saskatchewan, supported by Mitacs-funded research, focusses on safely and completely containing arsenic with the help of microorganisms. In the lab, arsenic is released from mine waste rock into water and the microorganisms naturally associated with the waste rock are used to immobilize arsenic as a solid.

The goal is to use the bacteria to control the chemical conditions in the water surrounding the waste rock preventing contamination of adjacent soil and groundwater.

For millennia, bacteria have manipulated the chemistry of their environments to suit their needs for energy and carbon as a food source. This new industry-academic collaboration taps into this same organic process and encourages the growth of the microorganisms by feeding them with carbon from sources as simple as molasses.

Postdoctoral fellow, Ali Motalebi, PhD, PEng, and Kerry McPhedran, PhD, PEng, Assistant Professor and principal investigator of the project, both of the Civil, Geological and Environmental Engineering at the University of Saskatchewan, are collaborating with Kebbi Hughes, PhD, Geo-Environmental Scientist at Orano Canada on a Mitacs research project to assess bioremediation and adsorption (the process by which a solid holds molecules of a gas or liquid) of arsenic released from mine waste rock.

Potential applications across the mining industry

The benefits of this research could boost the Canadian economy through the development of a cost-effective, environmentally friendly bioremediation technique for arsenic released from mine waste rock. The solution has potential to extend to other heavy metals and have applications in mining across Canada and the world.

Kebbi says, “Arsenic is the big one for us because of the nature of our deposits. If we can influence arsenic, we can potentially influence other metals as well. Arsenic is challenging so if it works for this, it’s likely we could adapt the technique to work for others.”

Research benefits the economy, the environment, and the future

Accessing additional deposits is expected to produce more job opportunities, particularly in the north, and strengthen the provincial economy.

“We’re optimistic it can advance environmentally sustainable mining and protect the Saskatchewan environment over the long term,” says Kebbi.

The benefits don’t end there. By working with Orano, Ali has strengthened his network and career as an environmental engineer through professional experience. He looks forward to future research collaborations that can improve environmental and economic outcomes.

For Orano, Kebbi says, “we have a history of working with universities. It’s really beneficial to us. If we have a research partner, it moves the idea along much more easily, and it’s helpful to have the outside perspective. They provide new insights, and we give them perspectives from the industry.”

Mitacs thanks the Government of Canada and the Government of Saskatchewan for their support of the Accelerate research internship in this story. Across Canada, the Accelerate program also receives support from Alberta Innovates, the Government of British Columbia, the Government of New Brunswick, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Ontario, the Government of Prince Edward Island, the Government of Quebec, and Research Manitoba.

Do you have a business challenge that could benefit from a research solution? If so, contact Mitacs today to discuss partnership opportunities:


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