The bioleaching mechanism of pyrite by the indigenous Thiobacillus thiooxidans was examined with the aid of scanning electron microscopy (SEM) and atomic force microscopy (AFM) images of the pyrite surface. The presence of pyrite eliminated the lag phase during growth of this microorganism. This was due to the stimulatory effect on cell growth of the slight amount of Cu 2+ that had leached from the pyrite. Zn2+ was found to be much more readily solubilized than Cu2+. The efficiency of bioleaching was four times higher than that of chemical leaching. SEM images provided evidence of direct cell attachment onto the pyrite surface, thereby enhancing the bioleaching rate. Furthermore, extracellular polymeric substances (EPSs) were found on the pyrite surface after 4 days of oxidation. AFM images showed that the pyrite surface area positively correlated with the oxidation rate. A combination of direct and indirect mechanism is probably responsible for the oxidation of pyrite by T. thiooxidans.
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