Using geomicrobiology and biotechnology to unlock lost cobalt resources

This PhD project will seek arsenic-tolerant bacteria in the natural environment that can be utilized to develop a modified process of bioprocessing applicable to high-arsenic ores.

The studentship is part of the Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership, funded by NERC and starts September 2019.

Apply for this course

Read the eligibility criteria and application guidance below, then send your application to

Application deadline: 7 January 2019

Research focus

This  project will seek arsenic-tolerant bacteria in the natural environment that can be utilized to develop a modified process of bioprocessing with a consortium of microbial assemblages (bacteria, archaea and fungi) applicable to high-arsenic ores. However, the application of bioprocessing technology to arsenic-rich ores has not been attempted to date, and this project will seek arsenic-tolerant bacteria that can be used for bioprocessing with a consortium of microbial assemblages applicable to high-arsenic ores.

The identification of new As tolerant microorganisms coupled with an understanding of their functional roles and uptake strategies will help to select an optimum and effective microbial consortium.


The PhD research student will:

  • Characterise indigenous microbial populations associated with cobalt and arsenic rich deposits using high throughput sequencing and culture-independent metagenomics bioinformatics analyses
  • Document weathering processes by bacteria and fungi in cobalt enriched ores using mineralogical and imaging analysis technologies
  • Carry out laboratory microcosm experiments with microbial enrichment consortia to test bioprocessing potential.


Cobalt is a crucial element for current and next-generation high-performance applications such as mobile phones and lithium batteries, and is vital to the clean energy agenda. However, there is currently a substantial supply deficit that is straining the already complex and bottlenecked supply chain, and there are currently no suitable substitutes for Co in these applications.

An estimated 10% of the world’s cobalt is in “lost resources” associated with primary ores and mine wastes in complex cobalt-arsenide deposits, where the cobalt is bound in potentially toxic arsenic compounds. Bioprocessing of ores by microorganisms is a low-energy and environmentally relatively benign technology that has been successfully applied to the recovery of some cobalt ore types. These new biotechnological developments could potentially also enable the use of cobalt-arsenide ores and wastes from closed mines adding value without additional exploration.

Supervision and training

This project is cross institutional between the Natural History Museum and Exeter University.

The project will use a multi-faceted approach and provide the PhD student with training in:

  • DNA and RNA extraction methodologies from environmental samples and enrichment cultures, PCR, high throughput sequencing
  • A range of mineralogical analytical methodologies such as X-ray diffraction, electron microscopy and wet chemistry
  • Microbiological culturing techniques
  • Bioinformatic and phylogenetic inference analysis

The student will have access to an integrated programme of postgraduate transferrable skills training and professional development.


Applications are primarily open to UK residents only (minimum residence of 3 years excluding time in further education), however, a limited number of full studentships are also available to EU residents. All applicants need to comply with the registered university's English-language requirements.

Applicants should have obtained or be about to obtain a First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree, or equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK. Applicants with a Lower Second Class degree will be considered if they also have a master's degree. Applicants with a minimum Upper Second Class degree and significant relevant non-academic experience are encouraged to apply.

How to apply

Applications for the PhD are processed through the Natural History Museum.

To apply please send the following documents to the Postgraduate Office at

  • Curriculum vitae.
  • Covering letter outlining your interest in the PhD position, relevant skills training, experience and qualifications for the research, and a statement of how this PhD project fits your career development plans.
  • Names of two academic referees.

The deadline for applications is 7 January 2019.

Any questions?

If you have any questions about the project please contact

Dr Paul Schofield


The Natural History Museum

Main Supervisor: Prof Richard Herrington

Co-supervisor: Dr Anne Jungblut

Co-supervisor: Dr David Bass

Co-supervisor: Dr Paul Schofield

Co-supervisor: Dr Raju Misra

University of Exeter 

Co-supervisor:  Dr Laura Newsome


Brown K, Hug CT, Sharon LA, Castelle I, Probst JC, et al. (2016) Thousands of microbial genomes shed light on interconnected biogeochemical processes in an aquifer system. Nature Communications, 7, 13219

Smith SL, Grail BM. Johnson DB (2016) Reductive bioprocessing of cobalt-bearing limonitic laterites. Minerals Engineering 106: 15: 86-90

Herrington R (2013) Road map to mineral supply. Nature Geoscience, 6 (11) : 892 - 894

Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership

Joint PhD training partnerships between the Natural History Museum and the Great Western Four, Bath, Bristol, Cardiff and Exeter universities.

Funded by 

Submit your application