NASA scientists completed an experiment aboard the ISS that involves biomining vanadium using the power of microbes to do some work. Biomining is common thanks to its cost-effectiveness and environmentally friendly capability of obtaining metals from nature. NASA believes that biomining could be leveraged with future space missions to obtain materials needed for long-duration missions from other planetary bodies.
A way to obtain raw materials, such as metals, from the surface of other planets, such as Mars, would eliminate the need to send so many raw materials from Earth. NASA’s latest study has proven that not only can microbes mine elements in space, some microbes perform even better in altered gravitational conditions than they do on earth.
In 2019, the ESA conducted an experiment aboard the ISS called Biorock. The results show that biomining can be possible on a large scale in space, allowing astronauts to extract elements they need for survival from their environment remaining independent from Earth. Vanadium is an element that is commercially available on Earth and is added to steel to increase its strength and corrosion resistance.
NASA says that by leveraging microbes, it can extract minerals and elements it needs without having to resort to using chemical methods that can damage the environment. Biomining also has a low energy demand, with the microbes only requiring food to conduct their mining operations.
Another significant benefit is that microbes used in biomining result in a very compact system easy to pack and store for deep space exploration. Experiments for the ISS used the KUBIC incubator and liquid growth media. Microbes were grown aboard ISS are known to break down rock under microgravity, and experiments were conducted under simulated lunar and Martian gravity conditions. Results of the study were interesting, with researchers surprised to find gravity did not affect the microbes.