10 September 2012

The University of Queensland (UQ) has signed a five-year, $1.25 million industry partnership alliance with global miner Vale to build a hub of geomicrobiological knowledge.

This is the second partnership between Vale – the world’s second-largest mining company – and UQ.

It will result in research on microbial communities and microbial metal extraction processes.

Geomicrobiology, a burgeoning field in Geosciences, studies microorganisms and their influence on many geochemical processes that occur at or near the Earth’s surface.

These processes include rock weathering, soil and sediment formation, and mineral genesis and degradation.

They have occurred throughout most of the Earth’s history, contributing to key junctures in the geological evolution of the Earth.

Understanding these phenomena requires a multidisciplinary approach focused on the contribution of ubiquitous microorganisms.

Microorganisms found in deposits from Vale’s current operations will be investigated for potential industrial applications; their genomes will be studied and mapped, and possible mechanisms for optimising their metal processing functions will be investigated and trialled.

The funding will see a Vale-UQ Geomicrobiology Laboratory established in the Richards Building at the St Lucia campus.

The Laboratory will be spearheaded by Professor Gordon Southam, the Vale-UQ Chair of Geomicrobiology.

Professor Southam recently joined UQ from the University of Western Ontario, Canada, where he was a Canada Research Chair and Director of the Centre for Environment & Sustainability.

“Because of my background in microbiology, my research in earth system processes takes a bacterial view of the world,” he said.

“This approach has revolutionised our understanding of fundamental biogeochemical processes that are catalysed by bacteria, which will be important to my future work as a member of the School of Earth Sciences at UQ,” Professor Southam said.

“I want to expand my work demonstrating the role of microorganisms in catalysing large scale, economic geological processes.”

Microorganisms continue to be implicated in many applied geological processes (that is, the formation of certain iron, uranium and even gold ores) resulting in the mining industry’s growing interest in this rapidly emerging field.

The expansion of geomicrobiology research in UQ's School of Earth Sciences will lead to biotechnological innovations, leveraging natural processes and will result in more sustainable mining practices.

Vale Institute of Technology Director Dr Luiz Mello said Vale had a strong tradition of supporting research and the company was looking forward to strengthening its partnership with the University through this new initiative.

“Vale’s mission as a global mining company is to transform natural resources into prosperity and sustainable development,” Dr Mello said.

“Research and the pursuit of innovation are critical to achieving our vision and creating the mining of the future.

“This alliance will not only build competencies and research infrastructure for both our organisations, it offers real potential to deliver research solutions for complex mining and mineral sector problems.”

By promoting university-industry collaborations, UQ's School of Earth Sciences and Vale will produce economic benefits for the Australian mining industry and enhance Australia’s position as a global leader in providing innovative solutions to these environmental and industrial challenges.

Media: Lynelle Ross, School of Earth Sciences (3365 1023, Lynelle.ross@uq.edu.au).
Professor Gordon Southam is available for interviews. Images available upon request.