Previously unknown species of bacteria are helping reduce the environmental impacts of alumina and aluminium production and saving the industries millions of dollars, a researcher at The University of Western Australia has found.
UWA microbiologist Naomi McSweeney discovered the naturally occurring bacteria break down and remove sodium oxalate, an organic impurity produced during the refining of low-grade bauxite into alumina. Her collaborative project involves UWA, Alcoa of Australia and CSIRO.
At a typical refinery, sodium oxalate forms by the tonne during the production of alumina. It can affect the colour and the quality of the final product.
"Oxalate can be removed by combustion, but this process releases excess carbon dioxide", Ms McSweeney said. "The impurity may also be stored but this represents a major cost to refineries so treatment is a preferred option."
Alcoa designed and installed an innovative large-scale bioreactor which has the capability to remove about 40 tonnes a day of sodium oxalate produced at its Kwinana refinery.
"Using bacteria to break down and remove oxalate is a better, more sustainable alternative," Ms McSweeney said. "The bacterial process breaks down the sodium oxalate and produces significantly less carbon dioxide while avoiding the need to store the impurity."
Ms McSweeney worked with researchers from Alcoa's Global Technology Delivery Group and the CSIRO's Light Metals Flagship to identify the main bacteria involved in degrading the oxalate within the bioreactor. They used DNA fingerprinting techniques to pick out the key players. What they found was a potentially new genus of Proteobacteria and a new species of the known genus Halomonas which are able to use the carbon in the oxalate to grow.
"Oxalates, and bacteria that feed on them, are common in nature - for example in our food, in our guts and in the root systems of plants such as rhubarb," she said. "However, these oxalate-degrading microorganisms were not the ones we found in the bioreactor. The bacteria doing most of the work in the bioreactor have never been found before."
To enhance the efficiency of the bioremoval process, the researchers are now determining the best conditions for growing these bacteria. Alcoa is seeking to apply the process to other refineries around the world, and hopes it will be able to use it to treat previously stockpiled oxalate.
The work was publicly presented for the first time through Fresh Science, a national competition sponsored by the Australian Government for early-career scientists. Ms McSweeney was one of 16 winners from across Australia. Her challenge included presenting her discoveries in verse at a Melbourne pub.