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E4-DTP NERC New approaches to copper production: arsenic capture and solventless extraction

   School of Chemistry

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  Prof JB Love, Dr B T Ngwenya, Prof C Morrison  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Application procedure

Applications must be made directly to the E4 DTP by the deadline of 06 January 2022. Further information on entry requirements and the stipend are at

Prior informal enquiries to the supervisors are welcome. Email: [Email Address Removed]; Web: Full details of the project and the application process can be found on the E4-DTP website


The capture and treatment of high levels of arsenic from copper-smelting flue dust, concentrates, and waste water that result from copper mining is important due to concerns over the environmental management of this potential carcinogen.[Refs. 1-3] Treatment technologies for arsenic-containing metallurgical wastes have been developed, including the oxidative precipitation of arsenic as its stable iron oxide mineral scorodite (FeAsO4.2H2O)[LJ1]  from acidic copper solutions. However, these precipitation processes are time-consuming, yield poorly characterised materials, and can be compromised due to the cementation of heavy metals such as cadmium. Furthermore, the upstream production of copper by solvent extraction requires the use of environmentally damaging organic solvents. This project will seek to improve arsenic remediation from copper concentrates using new extraction chemistry integrated with microbial precipitation to yield stable and environmentally benign waste arsenic materials. The exploitation of selective precipitation procedures in arsenic, cadmium, and copper production will be explored.

Research Questions

1. Can hydrometallurgical processes be applied to the selective separation of arsenic from copper and cadmium?

2. Can microbial transformation of the captured arsenic be optimised to produce stable solids at low temperature?

3. Can a designed, aqueous soluble reagent selectively precipitate copper from solution?

4. Can the modes of actions of these processes be understood such that generic improvements can be made in environmental remediation?


This project will comprise research from the Schools of Chemistry and Geosciences and will provide potential links with academics and industries in Chile, a country responsible for ca. 30% of the world’s copper production from mineral sources that contain arsenic and cadmium (Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, and Ecometales, Santiago, Chile). Thus, a broad impact in the metal recovery and environmental remediation fields can be made.

Solvent extraction of arsenic: Acidic leach solutions of arsenic (derived from copper concentrates) comprise the As(V) and As(III) complexes As(O)(OH)3 and As(OH)3, respectively and their related mono- and dianions. We will appraise their transport from an acidic aqueous into an organic phase using amide reagents L that we have developed for selective metalate extraction;[Ref. 3] it is anticipated that these reagents would become protonated and transport the arsenic as the anions, e.g. [HL][L]nAsO2(OH)2. The use of these reagents should allow for discrimination between As and Cu/Cd as the latter elements would be extracted as the Cu(II) and Cd(II) cations. We will study the efficacy of transport and its mechanism using a range of experimental, spectroscopic, and computational techniques. We will also attempt to develop selective and recyclable chemical precipitation methods to mitigate against the use the of organic solvents.

Microbial precipitation of arsenic: Microbial precipitation of scorodite produces a stable solid but requires high temperatures (e.g. Vega-Hernandez et al., 2019),[ref. 4] which limits the process to thermophilic organisms. By contrast, several bacteria, including Desulfosporosinus auripigmenti and Desulfovibrio strain Ben-RB [ref. 5] can simultaneously reduce As(V) to As(III) and S(VI) to S(-II), with consequent precipitation of orpiment (As2S3). However, this occurs over a narrow pH (6-7) and sulfide concentration range, with excess sulfide (> 1mM) solubilising the precipitate.[ref. 5] The key to optimising orpiment precipitation lies in controlling the rate of microbial sulfate reduction to limit the concentration of sulfide, and we will explore the use of consortia versus pure cultures, whilst also varying initial sulfate concentration to constrain As2S3 precipitation. A range of X-ray (spectroscopic and diffraction) techniques will be used to characterise the reaction products.

Solventless precipitation of copper: The use of organic solvents such as kerosene in organic/aqueous biphasic solvent extraction processes is becoming an increasing environmental issue. While advances are being made in the use of alternative solvents, for example ethylene glycol or mixtures of ionic liquids,[Ref. 6] aqueous-only separations are poorly studied. We will therefore evaluate the separation of copper from acidic aqueous copper concentrates by selective precipitation or immiscibility using aqueous soluble, linked phenolic oximes (HL---LH) to form precipitates or oils in contact with Cu cations. On contact with Cu(II) these would form polymeric complexes (-L---LCuL---LCu-)n that would be insoluble in water. We will study the selectivity of coordination for a range of metals using a variety of phenolic oximes, characterise the solids/oils formed by spectroscopic and crystallographic techniques, and develop processes for the release of Cu and reagent recycling.

Timeline: 0-12 months Arsenic chemical separation; 8-20 months microbial arsenic precipitation; 14-26 months solventless copper precipitation; 20-36 months complete process optimisation.


A comprehensive training programme will be provided comprising both specialist scientific training and generic transferable and professional skills.


The student will require a strong background in chemistry, either through a good Chemistry degree or related fields. Because of the multidisciplinary nature of this research, experience in metal coordination chemistry would be advantageous, plus some background in geochemistry and biochemistry

Equality & Diversity

The School of Chemistry holds a Silver Athena SWAN award in recognition of our commitment to advance gender equality in higher education. The University is a member of the Race Equality Charter and is a Stonewall Scotland Diversity Champion, actively promoting LGBT equality. The University has a range of initiatives to support a family friendly working environment. See our University Initiatives website for further information. University Initiatives website:

Funding Notes

A 3.5 year PhD studentship funded through the NERC Edinburgh Earth, Ecology and Environment (E4) Doctoral Training Partnership ( UK and non-UK nationals are eligible for this studentship funding.


1. B. Xu, Y. Ma, W. Gao, J. Yang, Y. Yang, Q. Li, T. Jiang, JOM, 2020, 72, 3860–3875.
2. (accessed 7 Oct 2020).
3. E. D. Doidge, L. M. M. Kinsman, Y. Ji, I. Carson, A. J. Duffy, I. A. Kordas, E. Shao, P. A. Tasker, B. T. Ngwenya, C. A. Morrison, J. B. Love, ACS Sustainable Chem. Eng., 2019, 7, 15019.
4. S. Vega-Hernandez, J. Weijma, C. J. N. Buisman, J. Hazard. Mater., 2019, 368, 221.
5. D. K. Newman, T. J. Beveridge, F. M. M. Morel, Appl. Environ. Microbiol., 1997, 65, 2022; J. M. Macy, J. M. Santini, B. V. Pauling, A. H. O’Neill, L. I. Sly, Arch. Microbiol., 2000, 173, 49.
6. X. Li, W. Monnens, Z. Li, J. Fransaer, K. Binnemans, Green Chem., 2020, 22, 417–426.

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