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Technological Risk in Mining: Biotech replacing Potash?

December 3, 2010

“Researchers conducting tests in the harsh environment of Mono Lake in California have discovered the first known microorganism on Earth able to thrive and reproduce using the toxic chemical arsenic. The microorganism substitutes arsenic for phosphorus in its cell components.”

“If this bacterium can exist without phosphorus, it’s possible we could create new kinds of fertilizers as phosphorus continues to run out on this planet. Scientists have been searching for a synthetic alternative to phosphorus-based fertilizer, the basis for modern agriculture, so far with little luck. It’s also possible that we now have a new tool to battle toxic arsenic dumps: new organisms that could incorporate all that poison into their genetic structure. Pretty clever creatures, all and all.”

Source: NASA; TBD.com, December 3 2010

Observations:

  • A new type of bacteria found by NASA is said to open new areas of research that could potentially lead to alternative forms of (biotechnological) fertilizer. However, during the press conference the scientists stressed that these potential applications should be regarded as long term opportunities.
  • During the press conference by NASA in which the discovery and the potential applications were revealed the shareprice of PotashCorp of Saskatchewan, supplier of raw material to the fertilizer industry, dropped by over 1%.
  • Drop of PotashCorp share price during NASA's press conference

Implications:

  • This invention is a good example of the technological risk the mining industry is facing. Technological innovations could either result in completely new methods of production or make the mining of certain minerals redundant (e.g. by providing other sources of fertilizer, replacing applications of aluminium by polymers).
  • PotashCorp did not mention any risk in this area in its annual report. It is hard to believe for most people in the conservative mining industry that anything might radically change the business environment.
  • In some cases the mining industry will have to redefine the purpose of the business. Is PotashCorp mining potash, or is it providing the world with fertilizer? What business are they in? And will it be possible to shift to radically new technologies? The oil business is facing similar questions regarding renewable energy technologies.

©2010 | Wilfred Visser | thebusinessofmining.com

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