University of Colorado, Boulder, Research & Innovation Office (RIO), RIO Seed Grant Program
Project start: July, 2019
Imagine a future where Earth is a zone reserved for living, and heavy industries and mining has moved off-world. Space mining can in fact, not only contribute to this, but it can enable human establishment far away from Earth. While this scenario may be far in the future, the only way to make it a reality is to start working on it. In space, virtually limitless resources exist of some of the 44 ‘endangered elements,’ chemical species that will face supply limitations on Earth in the coming years. While physicochemical processes are being investigated to mine these resources elsewhere, we focus on assessing the feasibility of using bacteria. This approach, called biomining, is currently used on Earth – for example, 15% and 5% of the copper and gold mined on Earth, respectively, is done via biological systems.
What are this project's objectives?
Our main aim is to assess whether biological organisms can be utilized in space for the extraction of iron from Lunar, Martian, and/or asteroid regolith simulant under simulated reduced gravity conditions.
How is this being done?
Sample culturing takes place in BioServe’s Fluid Processing Apparatus (FPA), a glass barrel used for spaceflight experiments (BioServe has used more than 5,000 FPAs on over 40 experiments in space). Using this established/heritage spaceflight hardware allows us to compare bacterial behavior results against data produced from space-flown samples. Reduced gravitational conditions are achieved using BioServe’s Clinostats. Tests are performed with Lunar, Martian, and Asteroid regolith simulants from the CLASS Exolith Lab.
This project is based upon the University of Colorado’s know-how in space microbiology and geomicrobiology, complemented with a collaboration with expert biomining researchers in Australia and space mining industry in the U.S. The Space Biomining team is composed of students, scientists, and engineers from CU’s Aerospace Engineering Sciences, Geological Sciences, and Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology (MCDB) departments, biomining experts from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Australia, and Crow Industries, Inc., a U.S. startup company knowledgeable on space in-situ resource utilization (ISRU).
Principal Investigator: Luis Zea, Ph.D.
Co-Investigator: Jesse Colangelo, Ph.D.
Collaborators: Yosephine Gumulya, Ph.D. and Anna Kaksonen, D.Tech. (CSIRO), and Jim Crowell (Crow Industries)
Students: Tadg Forward
- Pathak, Y., Araújo dos Santos, M., Zea, L. Handbook of Space Pharmaceuticals. Springer International Publishing
- Santomartino, R., Zea, L. & Cockell, C.S. The smallest space miners: principles of space biomining. Extremophiles 26, 7 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00792-021-01253-w
- Gumulya, Y., Zea, L., Kaksonen, A.H., In situ resource utilisation: The potential for space biomining, Minerals Engineering, 2021; Volume 176, 107288, ISSN 0892-6875,
- Kaksonen AH, Deng X, Morris C, Khaleque HN, Zea L, Gumulya Y. Potential of Acidithiobacillus ferrooxidans to Grow on and Bioleach Metals from Mars and Lunar Regolith Simulants under Simulated Microgravity Conditions. Microorganisms. 2021; 9(12):2416.
- Kaksonen, A. H., Deng, X., Bohu, T., Zea, L., Khaleque, H. N., Gumulya, Y., ... & Cheng, K. Y. (2020). Prospective directions for biohydrometallurgy. Hydrometallurgy, 105376.
Undergraduate Honor's Thesis
- Forward, T. (2020) Preliminary Protocols for the Quantification of Shewanella oneidensisIron Reduction Performance, (Honor’s Thesis - Adviser: Luis Zea) University of Colorado, Boulder
Conference Papers and Posters, Podcasts, and STEM outreach
- Fiske Planetarium Podcast “A View From Earth”, Episode 8 - Life finds a Way - Or does it? Guests: Luis Zea & Bruce Jakosky, July 2020 [Podcast] [Video]
- Forward T, Allen L, Stodieck L. Klaus D, Zea L. "Growth Dynamics of Bacteria Under Simulated Lunar and Martian Gravities." 70th International Astronautical Congress (IAC), Washington, DC, October 21-25, 2019.
- CU Boulder RIO Seed Grant: https://www.colorado.edu/researchinnovation/research-development/funding/rio-funding-opportunities/research-innovation-seed-grant-program/2019
- Jeff Zehnder's 'Can bacteria help people to mine asteroids?' Phys.org article
- Mining Magazine 'CU Boulder explores biomining in space'