Our planet is one-of-a-kind

It’s vital that we protect the Earth—its oceans and coasts, lakes and rivers, forests and deserts, mountains and valleys. We rely on its natural resources to generate food, energy and warmth.

Our researchers are driving forward environmental change and contributing to sustainable technologies. We want to stop exploiting the Earth’s natural resources and damaging the environment around us; so we’re looking to change the way we live and work. Among our many projects we’re working on marine, mining and manufacturing processes—finding green, sustainable ways of doing things. We’re using clever chemistry, repurposed materials and new ways of thinking to disrupt industry. With the help of government, not-for-profit and business partnerships, we are making a difference to the world around us.

Cleaner, greener mining

Toxic, flammable chemicals are common in mining. Even where safety protocols are strict, these chemicals are damaging to the environment.

Associate Professor Sarah Harmer and her team are working on replacing toxic chemicals in mining with bacteria in a technique called bio-floatation. Sarah is a physicist; she didn’t expect to be working with bacteria. At first, her work was based in theory and spectroscopic techniques (mostly working with spectromicroscopy: nanoscale resolution and imaging). Most reactions take place in liquids and gasses, so Sarah’s team started to develop an electro-chemical cell that mimics nature—using it to map chemical reactions. It soon occurred to her that this technique could be applied to mining. Clean chemistry is a major focus at Flinders University. It’s this focus that led Sarah to bacteria.

Over the past five years, Sarah’s team have been breeding bacteria that excrete polymer substances that can separate minerals from rock. Keeping them alive is a full-time job; a change of even a few degrees can kill them. This generation of bacteria can survive the toxic chemicals in some minerals and better dissolve the rock.

The real world of mining offers a spectrum of chemicals, and Sarah’s team are investigating how they react together, and with the bacteria. It’s an ideal combination where Sarah’s theoretical work with simulating real world chemical environments collides with her goals for cleaner, greener mining as she tests whether bacteria are, indeed, the solution.

By utilising the naturally occurring bacteria in soils on mining sites, we not only reduce costs but also begin to work towards a greener and more environmentally sustainable way of doing things.