German scientist Matthias Schmidt wants to extract rare earth metals from abandoned mines using bacteria. He has an unlikely partner — Nedal Said, a Syrian refugee scientist who escaped Aleppo.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Now for a story about an unusual partnership - two scientists trying to find a way to recover valuable metals from abandoned mines. It's happening in Leipzig. NPR's Joe Palca went to Germany to learn more.
JOE PALCA, BYLINE: In the lower level of a building on the campus of the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, there's a modern, well-equipped laboratory.
MATTHIAS SCHMIDT: We've got a number of different microscopes. Then we've got a laser microdissection system here.
PALCA: Matthias Schmidt is giving me a tour of the lab. Microscopes and laser microdissection systems are useful if you happen to be studying single cells or bacteria. So what are they doing in a lab that's trying to recover valuable metals from abandoned mines? Well, here's the deal. Schmidt says even when all the gold and silver in a mine has been removed, there are what's called rare-earth metals left behind in the mine tailings. For a long time, no one was particularly interested in these metals. But now they're valuable, showing up in everything from cell phones to self-cleaning ovens.
SCHMIDT: So one could think of extracting these metals somehow.
PALCA: But extracting the metals isn't easy.
SCHMIDT: These mine tailings, they cannot be processed chemically or mechanically at reasonable cost.
PALCA: Schmidt says there's another way to capture the valuable metals - let bacteria do it for you. He says some bacteria can basically eat these metals, concentrating them in their innards. The trick is to figure out which bacteria can do this.
SCHMIDT: And of course, they don't carry a sign in their hands and say, OK, here I am. But somehow you have to identify them.
PALCA: That's what Schmidt is trying to do. He's developing special microscopes and other tools that can spot the bacteria with just the right properties. Now, Schmidt is a physicist. He knows how to make tools. He needed a good microbiologist who knew about bacteria to help him in his quest. This is where the unusual partnership comes in.
NEDAL SAID: (Foreign language spoken).
PALCA: That's Nedal Said.
SAID: (Foreign language spoken).
PALCA: Said is one of thousands of refugees who landed in Germany after trying to escape the conflict in Syria. He has a Ph.D. in microbiology. In 2013, he was living in Aleppo. But life there was becoming extremely dangerous.
SAID: (Through interpreter) After the demonstrations begun, the state started rounding up people and putting them in prison - people from all the different sects, people working in the sciences and at the universities.
PALCA: One day he heard from a friend with inside information that he was about to be picked up. He fled with his family to Turkey and ended up in a refugee camp. After nearly two years in the camp, Said couldn't take it anymore. His life, his family's life was going nowhere. He decided to take the risky journey to Greece, even though he knew it could cost him his life.
SAID: (Through interpreter) It was definitely a real possibility. My wife and I knew several people who died making that journey to Greece.
PALCA: Said nearly did die. The overcrowded and flimsy raft he made the journey in ran out of gas in the middle of the ocean. Ultimately, though, he was rescued by the Greek coast guard and was able to make his way overland to Germany, only to wind up back in a refugee camp, this time in the town of Halle, near Leipzig. And then a remarkable bit of good fortune. One evening at an event for refugees at a local church, he met a German couple. The couple's son-in-law was a scientist at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research who needed to hire a microbiologist. Why? Because he was trying to use bacteria to extract valuable rare-earth metals from mine tailings. The son-in-law's name? Matthias Schmidt. Schmidt invited Said in for a job interview.
SAID: (Through interpreter) So, like, I was very nervous about that interview. It went really well.
SCHMIDT: We were lucky we found a microbiologist. And he convinced us that he would be very willing to learn. We trusted that we could train him for this work. And he's learning quickly.
PALCA: Schmidt says Said has come up with some useful techniques for preparing bacterial samples, techniques they hope will help them understand more about how bacteria are able to concentrate valuable rare-earth metals in mine tailings. And they both hope their partnership will become a model for more collaborations between established scientists and those who've had to flee their homelands. Joe Palca, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.