Forget the sorcerer’s hats, bubbling alembics and flashes of sulfurous power: There’s nothing magical about the gear. Take two ordinary-looking stainless steel vats, each designed to hold 30 kilograms (66 pounds) of electronic waste and a bathtub full of water. Add a filtration system fitted with humming pipes and gauges, and you might as well have stumbled into a microbrewery.
But a spell is cast when you pour in a flaskful of a murky solution – a primordial soup, in fact, containing billions of bacterial wizards that set about nibbling on the metal-streaked wires, chips, drives and other doodads that make up the guts of your computer. Faster than you can say abracadabra, this clunky apparatus frees up tiny nuggets of that kingly metal found in every laptop, PC and mobile phone: gold. One ton of computer circuit boards contains up to 250 grams of the stuff. In the course of a year, the system’s inventors claim, 6 tons of electrical junk will return up several kilos of gold.
That’s the vision, anyway. This grandest of schemes by Brain AG, Germany’s only publicly listed industrial biotech firm, is still in testing. Its ambitious scientist-managers are taking the show on the road this year, hoping to obtain financing to develop and commercialize the technology.
Founded back in 1993, Brain — a reverse-engineered acronym for Biotechnology Research and Information Network — is a rising star on Germany’s biotech scene. Its latest sensation, dubbed BioXtractor Gold, is a next-generation, bacteria-harnessing, metal-extracting lab housed in a corrugated shipping container. This is a prime example of industrial or “white” biotech.
“The gold content in industrial waste is up to a thousand times greater than ores in gold mines.”
Brain isn’t just an ingenious manager of microorganisms; it’s also an expert collector. The firm owns the world’s largest organic archive of 53,000 deep-frozen microorganisms. Some of these bacteria come from deep underground, from abandoned mercury or silver mines, while others were harvested close to rare-earth deposits in eastern Germany. The cloudy white liquid used in the BioXtractor contains a vast community of bacteria — around 100 billion in each quarter-liter dose.
These bacteria possess a wide range of molecular properties, including the ability to bind themselves to the tiniest traces of metals, including gold and silver. By selecting and combining specific molecular attraction and repulsion, Brain can dissolve and filter out up to 98 percent of the precious metal in computer waste.
The company calls its alchemic wizardry “urban mining.” It’s still a pilot project, but another version of the process is further advanced: using bacteria to extract gold from industrial waste, slag heaps and ash pits. Larger-scale operations are set to begin within the next two years.
“The gold content in industrial waste is up to a thousand times greater than ores in the world’s best gold mines,” says Jürgen Eck, Brain’s boss and co-founder. As the mining industry make bigger drills and deeper holes to offset falling yields, he says, Brain is isolating gold with bacteria and water. “It is genuinely a revolution,” the CEO boasts.
Bacteria could also hold the key to new artificial sweeteners. A large-scale collaboration with French ingredient supplier Roquette combines Brain’s laboratory production of taste molecules, patented in both the United States and Europe, with Roquette’s capacity for large-scale production.
Final regulatory approval is not expected until 2021, but Brain’s clients for micro-organic sweetener already include a global soft drink manufacturer and breakfast cereal producer, with talks ongoing with confectionary and dairy concerns.
Brain employs 235 staff at its facilities in a former dairy outside Frankfurt, with about 150 working directly on research and development. But its micro-organic workforce is just as crucial. They discovered one strain of ancient bacteria that lives on carbon dioxide in a rusty industrial chimney. Now it is put to work turning carbon dioxide into a precursor product of bioplastics.
This process, jointly developed with Südzucker, Europe’s largest sugar producer, convinced biotech investor Daniel Hopp to pay €28 million ($34.5 million) for a 10 percent stake in Brain last September. Mr. Eck plans to use the money for acquisitions in the food industry and enzyme research.
But Mr. Hopp’s father may give him a word of warning. Dietmar Hopp, the founder of SAP, has been badly burned by the biotech industry, above all with a major 2006 investment in GPC Biotech, a medical startup that hoped to cure prostate cancer with biotechnology. It didn’t, and by 2013 it had gone ignominiously bankrupt.
Brain itself has a mixed commercial record. Its most recent quarterly results showed a 13.1 percent fall in revenue over the previous year, a fall it explained by delayed contracts and the loss of a client in the cosmetics industry. At the same time, it admitted its hoped-for profitability would be delayed for at least a year.
Brian’s roller-coaster ride on the securities markets reflects the uncertainty. In February 2017, its stock price fell sharply when venture capital fund MIG sold its entire holding. Mr. Hopp’s partial acquisition of Brian last September piqued investor interest, sparking a rally that propelled the equity to an all-time high at the end of January, with a mild sell-off since.
Mr. Eck says investors understand that the company is a long-term enterprise, a participant in a reordering of economic priorities away from wasteful consumption to a sustainable “circular economy,” in a society that recharges itself organically. In the meantime, Brain will strive to be the gold standard for its peculiar brand of bacterial alchemy.
Jeremy Gray is an editor at Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. Brían Hanrahan adapted this story into English. Additional reporting by Bloomberg News.