Dr. Romilio Espejo: Generating science applied through the study of phenomena

Dr. Romilio Espejo: Generating science applied through the study of phenomena

Recognize the path of important scientists of our country is not only an institutional or political act, but also a cultural fact. That is why, every two years, are the figures of researchers who have made invaluable contributions to Chile, through the national award.

This year was Dr. Romilio Espejo, biochemist and Professor Titular of the University of Chile, who won the national award in the category of applied and Technological Sciences from his vast experience in bioleaching and genetic engineering, among other areas. "It was a surprise, because it had not nominated this time, however, and at last moment, I presented my papers. "In fact, when I reported it was very far from Santiago, and of course, I was very honoured and grateful with the news", says.

One of the main areas in which Dr. Espejo has made important contributions, was in the bio-leaching mining, being part of a team pioneer in Chile that engineered a complex process for obtaining copper. "Most of the work we do in this area, required a lot of research in engineering, mainly physical models, but was also needed to understand how copper was liberated from the mineral by the action of bacteria, so my" contribution in that group was to demonstrate that there was bacteria in the process, and that the efficiency in which they worked these bacteria was critical in the extraction process".

All the research linked to this area was developed in a private company that invested capitals for its development, forming a team of approximately 50 highly qualified professionals. This, and in the words of Dr. Espejo, shows how the company and science can work cohesionadamente the development of Chile. "The work we do was protected under a former patent which gave way to the creation of the only two plants in Chile, working on the basis of bioleaching, these are: Cerro Colorado and Quebrada Blanca." In this way, already when he beat the patent, the form of extraction of copper to other places was spreading, and emerged new plants biolixiviantes. This allowed, at some point, about 50% of the Chilean copper that was extracted in that moment, by means of this technique. It is a great achievement that must have been more recognized in his time", he muses.

The intriguing world of bacteria biolixiviantes

The normal process of extracting copper is generated through his foundry, and almost all sulphur resulting from this process, or disappears as sulphuric anhydride, or is released into the atmosphere to be later picked up as sulfuric acid. In this scenario, and facing an option other than the extraction of copper, Dr. Espejo was interested in the extremophile bacteria that instead of oxidizing sugars, oxidize sulfides. "Arrived by the interest scientific's have these bacteria, whose source of power are the sulphides." In that sense, it was very impressive to see how from the large batteries where the material is concentrated, is leaving a liquid acid which is goes watering the surface to remove the already solubilized copper. More interesting still, was showing a group of arthropods that were floating on the liquid acid, which were apparently feeding on bacteria that are in the liquid, there was a food chain where the essential component of the system were bacteria that grew by oxidizing sulfur rather than photosynthesis. One finds life where least expected it,"says the national award.

Dr. Espejo, he combined his research and work in the company optimally, in fact, being part of this team, could do basic research on how the bacteria that interested them worked. "I took my Fondecyt project to the company at the time and achieved various publications. The interesting thing about it is that the place where the research was done was a company and not a university, as usual. All this work was very pleasant to do, as the team was composed by people of great experience, who were very open to discussing the phenomena that we were showing. There was intense intellectual work inside," he says.

Finally, and in the words of the prominent scientist, "this award while it is in applied science, feel that it is my constant interest in studying basic and from those studies phenomena, analyzing what useful things can go. Currently there is enough research applied that achieves its end very quickly, without study them bases of the phenomenon, and that has led to big frustrations. My advice is to focus on the phenomena", ends.

Source: 4ID/CONGRESS, All rights reserved. ®
Journalist:Patricio Grunert Alarcón. ®

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