Mining Discovery

Toronto company looks to extract billions in value from Sudbury mine waste


Opportunity Overview


Clearly, the world has changed to embrace both carbon reduction and an increased need for critical minerals. BacTech now sees the whole playing field and the potential to recover multiple resources from existing pyrrhotite tailings.

BacTech is aggressively pursuing a new pyrrhotite bioleaching initiative for Nickel-Cobalt, Sulphur and Green Iron recovery in Ontario’s Greater Sudbury Basin – an area believed to hold between 75 and 100 million tonnes of discarded pyrrhotite tailings containing US$22 billion worth of Nickel alone.

Having filed for a provisional patent application to protect its proprietary bioleaching pyrrhotite materials bioleaching approach earlier in April 2022, BacTech has teamed up with Dr. Nadia Mykytczuk, a member of BacTech’s biomining technology advisory board and Interim CEO and President of MIRARCO Mining Innovation, to build a bioleach pilot plant in Sudbury, Ontario.

The pilot plant will focus on testing and simulating a commercial bioleach process consisting of a cascade of reactors operating on a continuous basis. To date, one reactor has already been completed and is being used to test select concentrates from BacTech’s Tenguel project. This plant is expected to be operational by July 2022

A Toronto-based environmental technology company is working on a pilot project in Sudbury to separate valuable minerals from mine waste with bacteria.

BacTech Environmental Corporation plans to have its pilot plant in Sudbury operational by July, and will use a process called bioleaching to extract minerals like nickel and cobalt from mine tailings. Tailings are the waste material that’s left over after minerals are extracted from a mine. 

The company estimates that over 100 years of mining, $27 billion worth of nickel sits in Greater Sudbury’s large tailings areas. Until recently, it was not economically viable to extract the valuable material.

But with new bioleaching technology, BacTech hopes to prove it can be done at a large scale, and make economic sense.

To extract the metals they take tailings rock called concentrate and put it in large stainless steel tanks. Over a six-day period, bacteria in the tanks separate the valuable metals from the rock.

“They literally attack it,” said BacTech CEO Ross Orr. 

“If you think of a brick wall, they are going after the mortar and they’re breaking down that mortar and eventually everything comes crashing down.”

Four one-litre tanks are on a table in a lab at Sudbury's Cambrian College.
A small-scale experiment at Sudbury’s Cambrian College features bioleach tanks that can be used to extract valuable minerals from mine waste. (Submitted by Ross Orr)

Last May the federal government set up a 10.9 million fund to support projects to develop Canada’s critical mineral value chains. BacTech has applied to receive around $100,000 to help support its pilot project.

High demand for electric vehicles, and the batteries that power them, has increased the value of minerals like nickel and cobalt, and made projects to extract them from tailings even more viable.

Orr said one advantage with their technology is that it can be scaled up to any size, because each tank works separately from the others.

He said there are between 75 and 100 million tonnes of concentrate in Greater Sudbury tailings. If they could process 1,000 tonnes per day, it would still take 30 years to extract all the usable minerals from that concentrate.

“Technology evolves,” he said. “Eventually, whether it’s us or somebody else, will come up with a better mousetrap that allows more volume to be pushed through end to end to solve the problem quicker.”

Nadia Mykytczuk is the interim president and CEO of mining research facility MIRARCO and interim executive director of the Goodman School of Mines at Laurentian University. She will lead BacTech’s bioleaching pilot project in Sudbury. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

To lead the pilot project in Sudbury BacTech has enlisted Nadia Mykytczuk, the interim president and CEO of mining research facility MIRARCO and interim executive director of the Goodman School of Mines at Laurentian University. 

Mykytczuk is an expert in bioremediation and has studied the diverse bacteria that can separate metals from rock.

“We have a diversity of lifeforms on this planet,” she told CBC News. “These bacteria actually evolved to eat iron and sulphur. They can break down the minerals like pyrite and pyrrhotite that actually carry metals like nickel, copper and cobalt.”


Moving Forward


As global leaders and sustainability experts search for solutions to decarbonize steel production and shore up EV battery metal supply chains, the pilot facility will work to obtain the design data necessary to establish a fully integrated tonnage-based demonstration plant, then leading towards full-scale commercialization.

BacTech’s scientific path is to develop an innovative zero-carbon liberation and extraction approach to separate iron from its ore, in addition to optimizing nickel-cobalt recovery efforts. This value-added production approach differentiates this process from others, and builds on prior successful bioleaching testing efforts conducted by the Company decades ago.

BacTech believes its method answers the need raised by the Government of Canada to help accelerate the sustainable extraction and processing of critical minerals from existing mine tailings while investing in domestic production. On May 11, 2022, the Canadian government announced a $10.9M fund to assist with the construction of pilot plants and projects to support the development of critical mineral value chains. Accordingly, BacTech intends to answer this call for proposals.

“Global demands for green steel and EV battery metals have simply skyrocketed, as have the calls for mining operations and manufacturers to cut carbon emissions,” said Ross Orr, President, and CEO of BacTech Environmental. “Providing the solution to the complex pyrrhotite issue in the Sudbury Basin would be a tremendous win for BacTech and its shareholders. Tech advancements, government support and favourable economics all make this possible.”

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