COG3: The geology, geometallurgy and geomicrobiology of cobalt resources leading to new product streams

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

Abstract

Cobalt is an essential element for modern world. Its use in metal alloys, rechargeable batteries, electronics and chemicals make it critical for a low-carbon society. Cobalt has the largest global market value of any of the individual e-tech elements (US$2.1 billion in 2013).
Cobalt is largely recovered as a by-product from the mining of other major metals and as a result, cobalt has not been the focus of study in ore-forming systems on its own. To address this knowledge gap we propose a systematic geological, geochemical and mineralogical approach to understanding the residence of cobalt in a range of important current and future ore minerals in diverse geological environments. A specific focus for this study are deposits forming in the Critical Zone of the Earth's crust where biological activity and weathering coincide and where cobalt is redistributed into forms where innovative bioleaching could change the way deposits are processed. Using new knowledge gained from the study of natural biological systems, advanced bioleaching techniques will be systematically applied to a range of deposits formed in the Critical Zone. Bioleaching also has great potential for reduced, sulphide-rich ores, particularly complex sulphide and often arsenic-rich ore-types where significant bioleaching has not yet been tested.
This COG3 proposal builds on our catalyst grant which developed a multi institute and multi investigator consortium with internationally recognised expertise across the geosciences including geology, geochemistry, mineralogy, microbiology and bioprocessing based in leading UK academic institutes: Herrington (NHM), Schofield (NHM), Johnson (Bangor), Lloyd (Manchester), Pattrick (Manchester), Coker (Manchester), Roberts (Southampton), Gadd (Dundee), Glass (Exeter), Mosselmans (Diamond) and Kirk (Loughborough), with in depth expertise on geology, geometallurgy and geomicrobiology applicable to developing recovery strategies for cobalt from natural deposits. This group is underpinned by the Partners including major mining companies Glencore, FQML and KGHM; a mid-tier European-based mining company Oriel; a junior UK-based mining SME Brazilian Nickel, an internationally accredited commercial research laboratory RPC and finally the Cobalt Development Institute representing the cobalt industry throughout the supply chain. They have all pledged to engage in the project, some through direct involvement in research activities, some with financial support for research and training and others by facilitating access to natural deposits and datasets. Further support comes from research colleagues at CSIRO in Australia.
Specific research will be delivered through a series of work packages which will address: 1) Geology and mineralogy of cobalt in natural systems; 2) Natural biogeochemistry of cobalt; 3) Bioprocessing of cobalt and development of new products; 4) Improving the cobalt supply chain through integrated studies and dialogue together with stakeholders representing the supply chain. This research directly addresses the NERC Security of Supply of Mineral Resources (SoS Minerals) initiative Goals 1 & 2 with a fundamental aim to recognise the mineral residence and chemical cycle of cobalt (Goal 1) and provide geometallurgical information that will facilitate new opportunities for improvements to current recovery, minimising waste through geometallurgy; thoroughly testing innovative, benign bioleach technologies for the extraction and downstream bio engineering of novel cobalt products (Goal 2). Through the collaboration of the PIs, Co-Is, Partners and the development of PDRAs and PhDs, the program will produce high impact scientific publications for the international literature, highly significant public outreach and education on behalf of the NERC SoS programme and establish the UK COG3 consortium as a world leader in research into innovative cobalt recovery from natural mineral deposits.

Planned Impact

This project has already built a consortium of unrivalled depth and breadth with the skillset needed to deliver evidence for the decision-making needed to secure the supply of cobalt for the 21st century and beyond. The project will deliver a range of answers to the key science questions that delay such security, delivering a range of tools that can be applied to the identification and definition of new cobalt resources and the application of novel and benign bioprocessing options to the extraction and recovery of cobalt from a range of mineralization types found in Europe and elsewhere in the world.
This project has the ambitious plans of providing (i) New geological and mineralogical knowledge from existing and potential deposits of cobalt that will underpin new, more efficient exploration and mining activities (ii) A clearer understanding of the natural biochemical cycle of cobalt better defining the pathways that make and break cobalt-bearing compounds in natural systems (iii) An assessment of a range of bioprocessing pathways, at a range of scales, in both reduced and oxidized ore systems, targeted towards more benign biorecovery methods for cobalt (iv) Insights into new methods capable of (bio)engineering compounds for use by the broader the downstream cobalt user community.
The project will provide new knowledge relevant to both UK and international researchers as well as cobalt producing companies and end users of specific cobalt products. The research is also relevant to an understanding of the geology, mineralogy and biogeochemistry of the terrestrial environment, specifically the processes that underpin the biogeochemical cycling of metals. The project will also lead to cross-disciplinary awareness and will train a cohort of new scientists with skills to take the research further.
Commercial development with one or more industrial partners will lead to obvious economic and societal benefit. In addition, various national environmental agencies could benefit from the results of our study, particularly those concerned with land management. User groups and the public will be engaged through organised workshops as well as specific meetings. The primary mechanism for knowledge exchange with academic colleagues will be publication of papers in international refereed journals and conference presentations. We will also organise symposia through selected learned societies. We will establish a project website that describes the research in accessible terms and project members will be able to add new material to the website on a regular basis. We will specifically engage with the public through the public learning programmes at individual consortium institutions and we will engage with schools targeted at Key Stages 3 and 4, encouraging pupils to engage with research science via direct relationships with individual young researchers in the SoS programme.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Description Work is ongoing but we have advanced our knowledge of where cobalt (a valuable e-tech element) is localised in iron/manganese deposits, and how it is cycled by microbial processes. We are looking at adapting these natural processes to help recovery of Co by industry.
Exploitation Route Simplification of existing industrial processes
Sectors Environment

 
Description Early Career Ambassador
Amount € 970 (EUR)
Organisation European Association of Geochemistry 
Sector Learned Society
Country Netherlands
Start 05/2017 
End 06/2017
 
Description Environmental Mineralogy Group Early Career Rsearch Bursary
Amount £500 (GBP)
Organisation The Mineralogical Society of Great Britain and Ireland 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2016 
End 10/2016
 
Description FEMS meeting attendance grant
Amount £354 (GBP)
Organisation Federation of European Microbiological Societies (FEMS) 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 07/2018 
End 08/2018
 
Description Microbiological Society Travel Bursary
Amount £500 (GBP)
Organisation Microbiology Society 
Sector Learned Society
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2016 
End 03/2016
 
Description Microbiological Society Travel Bursary
Amount £150 (GBP)
Organisation Microbiology Society 
Sector Learned Society
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2017 
End 04/2017
 
Description Microbiology Society Outreach Grant
Amount £210 (GBP)
Organisation Microbiology Society 
Sector Learned Society
Country United Kingdom
Start 04/2017 
End 05/2017
 
Description Microbiology Society Travel Grant
Amount £592 (GBP)
Organisation Microbiology Society 
Sector Learned Society
Country United Kingdom
Start 07/2018 
End 08/2018
 
Description Mineralogical Society Senior Travel Bursary
Amount £500 (GBP)
Organisation The Mineralogical Society of Great Britain and Ireland 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2016 
End 03/2016
 
Description Royal Society of Chemistry Manchester Section Travel Bursary
Amount £400 (GBP)
Organisation Royal Society of Chemistry 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2016 
End 10/2016
 
Description Royal Society of Chemistry Outreach Grant
Amount £210 (GBP)
Organisation Royal Society of Chemistry 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 04/2017 
End 05/2017
 
Description JRL gave Pint of Science talk, 17th MAY 2017 Bluu Smithfield Market Hall 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Approx 50 general public attended Pint of Science talk, 17th MAY 2017 Bluu Smithfield Market Hall on microbes in the environment (one of three speakers)
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description School visit, Winchester 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact JRL gave talk to 6th form students at Peter Symonds College, Winchester. Feedback positive ... better engagement with environmental science/geomicrobiology
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Science stall 'Life at the Extremes' 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Science stall ran at Discover Space and the Bluedot festival. Life at the extremes: What does life need to exist? We all need to be able to make energy to grow and reproduce. Humans make energy by breathing air and eating food, but this is not the case for all of life on Earth, nor would it necessarily be possible on other planets. How do organisms survive in extreme Earth environments? For example, microorganisms live where there is no oxygen or air, they also live in ice, boiling springs, salt, acidic waters, and even in rocks buried thousands of metres below the Earth's surface. Understanding the diversity and limits of life on Earth helps us to define our search for signs of life on other planets including possible chemical and geological signatures. This enabled us to talk about our research with anaerobic microorganisms that live in metal deposits.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017,2018
URL https://manchestergeomicro.wordpress.com/2017/08/02/bluedot-festival/