Potential improvement of tailings geotechnical behaviour using bacteria

Mine waste geotechnics, geochemistry and biology


Hernan Cifuentes


The University of Queensland

Despite the recognised importance of tailings management, there remain little data on the potential benefits of biological treatments compared with physical and chemical treatments. The operation of the majority of tailings storage facilities (TSFs) continues to employ mainly physical solutions, such as sub-aerial tailings slurry deposition, with increasing adoption of thickening, paste and filtration to dewater the tailings involving the addition of chemicals such as flocculants and coagulants. However, with tailings production continuing to escalate rapidly due to the increasing demand for commodities and reducing ore grades, available technologies have not demonstrated cost-effective performance at high tailings production rates. This paper examines the emerging role of bacteria to better manage tailings, reducing risks and optimising storage capacity. Bacteria have the potential to enhance tailings dewatering, maintain their permeability, delay the onset of desiccation cracking, and improve their shear strength. Bacteria-treated tailings may be suitable for use as construction materials. Bacteria also have potential in limiting the dusting of tailings and facilitating rehabilitation on closure. The paper describes a series of laboratory involving the addition of harmless bacteria to a range of tailings. The bacteria form a compact material called calcite (a common and stable form of calcium carbonate), which immobilises the tailings particles, releases water, and cements the tailings in a stable and natural matrix. The water released can be recovered or evaporated, depending on site objectives. The bacterial reactions are linked to physical and chemical processes, providing the potential for an optimal mix of technologies for particular tailings and site conditions.

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