03:02
TED2012

Damian Palin: Mining minerals from seawater

Filmed:

The world needs clean water, and more and more, we're pulling it from the oceans, desalinating it, and drinking it. But what to do with the salty brine left behind? In this intriguing short talk, TED Fellow Damian Palin proposes an idea: Mine it for other minerals we need, with the help of some collaborative metal-munching bacteria.

- Biological miner
Damian Palin is developing a way to use bacteria to biologically "mine" minerals from water -- specifically, out of the brine left over from the desalinization process. Full bio

I collaborate with bacteria.
00:16
And I'm about to show you
00:18
some stop-motion footage that I made recently
00:19
where you'll see bacteria accumulating minerals
00:21
from their environment
00:23
over the period of an hour.
00:25
So what you're seeing here
00:27
is the bacteria metabolizing,
00:28
and as they do so
00:30
they create an electrical charge.
00:31
And this attracts metals
00:33
from their local environment.
00:35
And these metals accumulate as minerals
00:38
on the surface of the bacteria.
00:40
One of the most pervasive problems
00:42
in the world today for people
00:45
is inadequate access
00:46
to clean drinking water.
00:48
And the desalination process
00:49
is one where we take out salts.
00:51
We can use it for drinking and agriculture.
00:53
Removing the salts from water --
00:55
particularly seawater --
00:57
through reverse osmosis
00:59
is a critical technique
01:00
for countries who do not have access to clean drinking water
01:02
around the globe.
01:05
So seawater reverse osmosis
01:06
is a membrane-filtration technology.
01:07
We take the water from the sea
01:10
and we apply pressure.
01:12
And this pressure forces the seawater
01:14
through a membrane.
01:17
This takes energy,
01:18
producing clean water.
01:19
But we're also left with a concentrated salt solution, or brine.
01:22
But the process is very expensive
01:26
and it's cost-prohibitive for many countries around the globe.
01:27
And also, the brine that's produced
01:30
is oftentimes just pumped back out into the sea.
01:31
And this is detrimental to the local ecology
01:34
of the sea area that it's pumped back out into.
01:37
So I work in Singapore at the moment,
01:39
and this is a place that's really a leading place
01:41
for desalination technology.
01:44
And Singapore proposes by 2060
01:46
to produce [900] million liters per day
01:49
of desalinated water.
01:52
But this will produce an equally massive amount
01:54
of desalination brine.
01:57
And this is where my collaboration with bacteria comes into play.
01:59
So what we're doing at the moment
02:02
is we're accumulating metals
02:04
like calcium, potassium and magnesium
02:07
from out of desalination brine.
02:09
And this, in terms of magnesium
02:11
and the amount of water that I just mentioned,
02:13
equates to a $4.5 billion
02:16
mining industry for Singapore --
02:19
a place that doesn't have any natural resources.
02:21
So I'd like you to image a mining industry
02:23
in a way that one hasn't existed before;
02:26
imagine a mining industry
02:28
that doesn't mean defiling the Earth;
02:30
imagine bacteria helping us do this
02:33
by accumulating and precipitating
02:35
and sedimenting minerals
02:38
out of desalination brine.
02:41
And what you can see here
02:42
is the beginning of an industry in a test tube,
02:44
a mining industry that is in harmony with nature.
02:46
Thank you.
02:50
(Applause)
02:51
Translated by Timothy Covell
Reviewed by Morton Bast

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About the Speaker:

Damian Palin - Biological miner
Damian Palin is developing a way to use bacteria to biologically "mine" minerals from water -- specifically, out of the brine left over from the desalinization process.

Why you should listen

Research engineer Damian Palin has long been fascinated by the process of biomineralization–with particular attention on the mechanisms involved for mineral precipitation. At the Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology (in collaboration with Nanyang Technical University, Singapore), he conducts experiments to assess the ability of microorganisms to mine selected minerals out of seawater desalination brine. This study was based on compelling and burgeoning evidence from the field of geomicrobiology, which shows the ubiquitous role that microorganisms play in the cycling of minerals on the planet. 

He says: "It is my aim to continue to research in the field of biomineralization, while exploring the mechanisms responsible for mild energetic mineral (including metal) precipitation for the production of mineral composites."

Read our in-depth Q&A with Damian Palin >>

More profile about the speaker
Damian Palin | Speaker | TED.com