Moderately thermophilic acidophiles and their use in mineral processing
This research project focused on moderately thermophilic acidophilic microorganisms and their role in the oxidation of pyrite. A major objective of the work was to assess the relative efficiencies of defined combinations of moderate thermophiles in oxidising pyrite under defined conditions. In addition, various aspects of the physiology and phylogeny of moderately thermophilic acidophiles were investigated. Moderately thermophilic acidophiles, including novel acidophiles (a thermotolerant Leptospirillum and a Ferroplasma sp. ), were isolated from a commercial stirred-tank pilot plant. Pyrite oxidation by mixed cultures of different combinations of moderate thermophiles, including the novel isolates, was assessed in preliminary shake flask experiments. Data from these experiments were used to select microbial consortia in later experiments in temperature- and pH-controlled bioreactors. These involved monitoring rates of mineral oxidation, and relative numbers of the different microorganisms included in the original inoculum, using a plating technique in conjunction with a molecular approach (FISH). The results from the pyrite oxidation studies indicated that mixed populations of acidophiles may accentuate or diminish the rates and extent of pyrite oxidation, relative to pure cultures. The thermotolerant Leptospirillum isolate was found to be unable to oxidise a pyrite concentrate when grown in pure culture, though this inhibition was overcome when the iron-oxidiser was grown in mixed cultures with various Grampositive acidophiles. Investigation of the effects of fifteen individual and mixtures of flotation chemicals on moderately thermophilic acidophiles revealed different degrees of toxicities of the different reagents and sensitivities of the microorganisms, with the Leptospirillum isolate generally being the most sensitive of those tested. The phenomenon of pH-related ferric iron toxicity to moderately thermophilic and mesophilic Gram-positive bacteria was also investigated. ARDREA (Amplified Ribosomal DNA Restriction Enzyme Analysis) using the 16S rRNA gene sequences of known acidophilic bacteria, was refined and developed, and applied successfully to identify moderate thermophiles isolated from environmental samples.