Engineering biology for critical metal recovery from industrial wastestreams

Lead Research Organisation: University of Manchester
Department Name: Earth Atmospheric and Env Sciences


Metals play a central role in biology. Microbial processes, in particular, have evolved over several billions of years to bioprocess a broad range of metals, ensuring their incorporation into biomolecules as metal cofactors where needed, or to detoxify them when they accumulate to dangerous levels. Metals are also very important to industry being used in
products spanning construction, transport, electronics, medicine and the chemical industries. Metals are especially important as catalysts, underpinning many sectors of the chemical and pharmaceutical industries. For example, metal catalysts are responsible for 30% of Europe's gross domestic product, and the processing of 80% of all manufactured products. However, the most important metals used for catalysis applications (e.g. palladium and platinum), are very expensive, in short supply and toxic to the environmental if released.

The EB-MIND project brings together a unique group of world-renowned academics to develop an entirely new approach for recovering the metals needed for catalysis from waste industrial solutions, addressing these problems. EB-MIND will use state of the Engineering Biology tools to fine-tune metal-recovering microbes that live naturally in the environment, adapting them to the unique and toxic conditions in industrial waste, so that they can recover valuable metals from industrial waste streams and make unique, catalytically active nanoparticles for industrial use. Working with a major catalyst provider (Johnson Matthey) EB-MIND will explore how these novel Engineering Biology-enhanced biotechnological metal recovery processes can be used to support a globally important industry, and quantify the environmental impacts of these new processes within a low waste "circular economy".

Technical Summary

EB-MIND builds on a successful ongoing research programme on platinum group metal (PGM) bioprocessing (initiated through a current I-CASE PhD and recent BBSRC NIBB funding), supporting progression from the low to mid technology readiness levels (TRLs) using the tools of Engineering Biology. We will use our recently acquired understanding of the controls on PGM nanoparticle biosynthesis to develop scalable and deployable biotechnologies to recover PGMs from typical industrial streams, alongside analysing the environmental sustainability through life cycle assessments (LCA). Key will be the use, for the first time, of TraDIS technologies to help overcome limitations we have identified in these systems, bioengineering PGM-recovering strains to tolerate potentially toxic processing conditions, including low pH acidic streams and toxic contaminants (including other metals) required for success. This project brings together a unique cross-disciplinary research team of University of Manchester (UoM) academic experts in engineering biology, alongside world renowned specialists in geomicrobiology, molecular biology, material science, catalysis and LCA, working closely with TraDIS experts at the Quadram Institute (QI) and metallobiochemistry at Durham University (DU). Together we will work with project partners Johnson Matthey (JM), the leading provider of PGM catalysts to the world market, to help deliver a unique engineering biology solution to catalytic metal biorecovery. If successful EB-MIND will not only deliver a unique environmental solution to converting low value PGM effluents to novel high value microbially-synthesised nanocatalysts, but it will also help pave the way for a wide range of metal-biorecovery processes targeting e-waste streams, helping establish the UK as leaders in this emerging field.


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