What future generations decide to do about the ever-growing number of landfills around the world is the kind of question that keeps conservationists up at night, and recovering gold from this waste is appealing. The problem is especially pressing in the dense urban areas where trash and other waste is generated in high volumes. For instance, the state of New Jersey actually pays other states and municipalities to haul away portions of its garbage because it is rapidly running out of places to put the stuff.
A number of different studies have shown that our roadways, our sewers, and our discarded electronics all contain small amounts of precious metals. They all represent opportunities for recovering gold. The problem is that, in most cases, these particles of gold, silver, platinum, and palladium cannot be recovered or recycled in any cost-effective or scalable manner.
However, some scientists in the U.K. are exploring innovative new techniques for recovering gold that embrace the latest technology in order to—quite literally—eat away at piles of waste and leave only the precious metals behind.
The new method would use the recent advancement in gene editing to alter small organisms or bacteria. The idea would be to make these microscopic critters capable of breaking down metals and toxic waste. They could then be used to consume the unwanted or useless material. Only the desired substances would remain.
Theoretically, with the aid of the new CRISPR method for altering individual genes, a strand of bacterium could be “designed” to target and consume only certain chemicals or compounds. Such applications could be extended to the mining industry, opening up new avenues to extract hard-to-reach minerals. The would-be process has been dubbed “biomining.”
Other uses cited by the trade publication Engineering & Technology (E&T) could include making the organisms change color in response to a particular element (such as gold) in order to literally show the way to whomever is searching.
Controversially, this idea wades into the topics of genetic engineering and gene manipulation. Some critics claim that this would open Pandora’s Box with regard to other more troubling uses of synthetic genetics. Unleashing mutant bacteria could have unintended ecological consequences or pose an unforeseen danger to public health if handled irresponsibly.
Aside from the potential ethical conundrum, other scientists are skeptical that the plan would be economically feasible even as the technology behind biomining becomes a reality. There are also logistical challenges that could be difficult to overcome. If proven viable, however, it would revolutionize both the recycling and mining industries.
The opinions and forecasts herein are provided solely for informational purposes, and should not be used or construed as an offer, solicitation, or recommendation to buy or sell any product.