The use of reactors in biomining processes
Microbial processes applied to mining operations are gaining increasing interest in the last years. Potential and current applications include the mining of gold, copper and other heavy metals, desulfurization of coal and oil, tertiary recovery of oil and biosorption of metal ions. Currently, bacterial leaching of copper and biooxidation of refractory gold concentrates are well-established large-scale processes that are carried on using heaps and tank reactors. Heap operation is simple and adequate to handle large volumes of minerals, but their productivity and yields are limited because of the severe difficulties in exerting an adequate process control. On the other hand, reactors can economically handle moderate volumes of material, but they allow for a close control of the variables involved, rendering significantly better performances. This paper reviews the basis of reactor selection and design for bioleaching processes. Special attention is given to the influence of oxygen and carbon dioxide mass transfer, process stoichiometry, solids suspension and slurry homogeneity, and the use of bioreactors in gold mining. It is concluded that the future of reactors in biomining is promising and that new applications, such as the bioleaching of copper concentrates, will soon be a reality.