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Microbes may be the friends of future colonists living off the land on the moon, Mars or elsewhere in the solar system and aiming to establish self-sufficient homes.
Space colonists, like people on Earth, will need what are known as rare earth elements, which are critical to modern technologies. These 17 elements, with daunting names like yttrium, lanthanum, neodymium and gadolinium, are sparsely distributed in the Earth’s crust. Without the rare earths, we wouldn’t have certain lasers, metallic alloys and powerful magnets that are used in cellphones and electric cars.
But mining them on Earth today is an arduous process. It requires crushing tons of ore and then extracting smidgens of these metals using chemicals that leave behind rivers of toxic waste water.
Experiments conducted aboard the International Space Station show that a potentially cleaner, more efficient method could work on other worlds: let bacteria do the messy work of separating rare earth elements from rock.