December, 2010

Making Microbes Better Miners

By Julian Dowling
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Chile’s large mining industry is a fertile environment for entrepreneurs to develop innovative services. Antofagasta-based Aguamarina is one firm that is harnessing local scientific expertise to tap a niche market for customized biomining services in Chile and abroad.

The dry, arid conditions in Chile’s Atacama Desert may seem inhospitable to life, but microorganisms known as “extremophiles” thrive there on a diet of minerals and air.

Aguamarina’s story begins in 2007 at the University of Antofagasta where Pamela Chávez-Crooker, a microbiologist with a post doctorate from the University of Hawaii and a PhD from the University of Kyoto, was working when she realized there was a demand for bioleaching services in the local mining industry.

With her business partner and CEO, Juan Manuel Aguirre, she created Aguamarina and devoted herself fulltime to the endeavor in 2008. 

Today, the company employs 16 scientists at its lab in Antofagasta, including 14 women. “It is positive discrimination, the mining industry is very male-dominated but many biologists are women,” she notes.

Aguamarina’s list of clients includes some of the largest mining firms in the country - BHP Billiton, Xstrata, Collahuasi and Barrick.

“We are here because of these companies, they couldn’t buy the service we provide in the market so they pay us to develop it,” says Chávez-Crooker.

Bioleaching occurs naturally in copper mines, but Aguamarina uses genetically modified bacteria to speed up the process and increase the copper yield per ton of ore by 2% or 3%.

This extra copper represents millions of dollars in income for mining companies, says Aguirre, who recently opened an office in Santiago’s Las Condes neighborhood to be closer to their head offices.

And the benefits don’t stop there - bioleaching is also much cheaper, more efficient and environmentally friendly than traditional leaching which uses toxic chemicals. “You don’t have to pay the bacteria, they work for free,” explains Aguirre, adding the process also uses much less water, which is important in the desert.

Aguamarina’s location in Antofagasta, the largest city in northern Chile, presents some logistical challenges - supplies must be trucked up from Santiago and lab equipment sent there for repairs, says Aguirre.

“Chile is a very centralized country and it’s nearly impossible to develop a company 100 percent outside Santiago,” he notes.

But being close to the country’s main copper mines is worth the inconvenience, says Chávez-Crooker, adding that microbiologists are drawn to Antofagasta by the chance to work for one of Chile’s few biomining companies.

And the company is growing fast - it started with sales of US$100,000, but brought in around US$400,000 in 2009 and should earn a similar amount this year with plans to launch a new product in the market in 2011.

This device, which allows companies to remotely monitor bacteria in their leaching sites using special sensors, was developed thanks to a US$550,000 grant from CORFO Innova, the government’s innovation promotion arm.

“We wouldn’t exist today without CORFO, it’s very difficult to do applied research in Chile without state support,” says Aguirre.

The company plans to apply for another grant next year to work on bioleaching technology in partnership with the J. Craig Venter Institute in San Diego, California.

Astrobiologists at the University of Southern California, studying the conditions for life on Mars, have developed technology that could increase the speed of the bioleaching process by up to ten times, she notes.

“The conditions on Mars are similar to the desert, so we can apply the same technology here to make bacteria into better oxidizers.”

Aguamarina’s scientists collect samples from the mine, which are sent to the lab for analysis. The microbes are then genetically modified to boost their oxidation capacity and sent back to the mine for use in bioleaching.

Since the bacteria are different in each location, the process has to be customized. Although most of the lab work is done in Antofagasta, some bacteria are sent to South Korea for DNA sequencing, which has state-of-the-art technology for this purpose, explains Chávez-Crooker.

Aguamarina also analyzes samples for companies in the United States, Brazil and Peru, and sends the results online. “We are a global company that is exporting knowledge,” says Chávez-Crooker.

Bioleaching also has applications outside the mining industry. For example, it can increase uranium production, which has generated interest from countries in the Middle East, she notes.

In Chile, the Air Force is interested in using microorganisms to protect its fighter jets from metal fractures caused by corrosion. “If we can find a mechanism to control biocorrosion, it can be used in almost any industry,” she says.

Bioremediation is another area where bacteria are put to work. Chemicals in the tailings at abandoned mines can trickle out, polluting local water supplies with arsenic, cyanide and other poisons. Aguamarina’s process uses bacteria to remove the toxins from the rock and metal, producing carbon dioxide and nitrogen as harmless by-products.

But biotech research and development costs money. CORFO has financed Aguamarina in the early going but to grow globally it needs to tap venture capital markets, says Chávez-Crooker.

This could happen as early as next year - Chávez-Crooker recently pitched the company’s business model to potential investors in the United States with good results.

These meetings were made possible by the U.S. non-profit organization Endeavor which gives promising entrepreneurs like Chávez-Crooker access to venture capitalists and universities like MIT and Stanford. “Many doors have opened for us thanks to Endeavor,” she says.

Chávez-Crooker is also applying to CORFO Innova to be listed as a national research laboratory, which provides a tax benefit to companies worth 45% of their investment. “This is an incentive for companies to invest in innovation,” she says.

Aguamarina has already won recognition for its innovative biomining processes – it was recently nominated for an Avonni Innovation award.

But if all goes to plan, the company’s business model will change in 2011 with a new product in the market, “smart” capital and new research grants. “It’s going to be a big year,” says Chávez-Crooker.

Literally “sea water,” Aguamarina is also the name of a semi-precious stone found in the desert. “It’s like a microorganism, something so small you can’t see but you know is there,” she says.

The microorganisms responsible for Aguamarina’s success are invisible to the naked eye, but you don’t need a microscope to see the future for this company.

Chávez-Crooker and her team have shown that Chilean scientists have the talent and creativity to be world leaders in biomining. Now, thanks to cooperation with U.S. universities and venture capitalists, Aguamarina is poised to take the next big step.

Julian Dowling is editor of bUSiness CHILE