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Journal of the Southern African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy

On-line version ISSN 2411-9717

Abstract

GERICKE, M.. Review of the role of microbiology in the design and operation of heap bioleaching processes. J. S. Afr. Inst. Min. Metall. [online]. 2012, vol.112, n.12, pp. 1005-1012. ISSN 2411-9717.

Over the past few decades the commercial application of heap bioleaching technology for the extraction of base metals has become increasingly important, due mainly to the depletion of high-grade ore reserves. Heap bioleaching is widely used for the extraction of copper from secondary copper sulphide ores. The design and engineering aspects of the process have received considerable attention, but issues related to the microbiology of the process have been subjected to less rigorous scrutiny. The major role of micro-organisms in bioleaching processes is to catalyse the regeneration of ferric iron and protons, from ferrous iron and by sulphur oxidation respectively. It is accepted that even the most carefully engineered heaps are heterogeneous in terms of temperature, pH, the presence of anaerobic pockets, irrigation efficiency, and dissolved solutes. Since interactions between solution chemistry, mineralogy, and microbial populations exist in heaps, a better understanding of the correlation between microbial numbers and types with changes in these chemical and physical profiles with time would be beneficial during process design and operation of heaps, and could result in faster start-up times and higher metal recoveries. This paper reviews the role of microbiology in heap bioleaching processes. Aspects such as microbial diversity, identification and monitoring of cultures, inoculation strategies, colonization behaviour, and tolerance to metals and salts are discussed, and the potential contribution of the knowledge to the improvement of the operation and design of heap bioleach processes assessed. Conclusions are drawn with respect to the role of genetic engineering, heap inoculation practises, and remaining areas for future heap bioleaching research and development.

Keywords : heap bioleaching; microbiology; process design; operation..

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