Antimony trioxide producers could face competition from an unexpected source after researchers discovered toxic-metal-breathing bacteria capable of producing antimony trioxide from their respiration.

The bacteria, discovered by researchers at the University of Georgia (UGA) in a salt lake near Yosemite National Park, breath toxic metals, rather than oxygen, the UGA reported this week.

They are reportedly particularly fond of arsenic, but also breathe elements such as antimony and are capable of making antimony trioxide crystals which researchers boast are "superior" to industrially produced material.

“The antimony trioxide crystals produced by this bacterium are far superior to those that are currently produced using chemical methods,” James Hollibaugh, the professor of marine sciences at UGA and principal investigator on the project, said. “We tested the crystals we made alongside commercially available products that are 99% pure and ours is either of identical or superior quality.”

The process could be industrialised by keeping large cultures of the bacteria in holding tanks and feeding oxidised antimony to make the naturally forming antimony trioxide crystals, researchers on the project said.

The bacteria could also be used to remove contaminants such as selenium and tellurium from waste mines or refineries.

Further research is needed before the applications can be used, UGA said, but the university has applied for patents to protect the bacterium and their processes.

“UGA is currently seeking partners interested in licensing this technology and also partnering with Professor Hollibaugh toward the development of additional industrial uses for the invention,” Gennaro Gama, the senior technology licensing manufacturer at UGA, said. “We believe this technology represents a feasible solution to many kinds of environmental contamination, but it is also useful for producing important commodities such as antimony trioxide and elemental selenium and tellurium.”