Phytoremediation - Practical Green Mining
Phytoremediation - Practical Green Mining

Phytoremediation – Practical Green Mining

The last couple of years has changed many to go green and try to do their part to help mother nature recover from conventional mining that will soon reach its end.

But can mother nature help in the process?

Phytomining, also known as agromining or phytoremediation, uses plants known as ‘hyperaccumulators’ that extract metals from the soils into their roots and extracting the metals from them. The concept is not new as it was formed in 1983 by agronomist Rufus L. Chaney at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and put into practice by many research teams but never adopted by the traditional mining industry.

X-ray of the seed capsules of the nickel hyperaccumulator plant Alyssummurale. The red shows its structure, green shows calcium, and the blue shows nickel for phytoremediation. Pic: Sustainable Minerals Institute.
X-ray of the seed capsules of the nickel hyperaccumulator plant Alyssummurale. The red shows its structure, green shows calcium, and the blue shows nickel for phytoremediation. Pic: Sustainable Minerals Institute.

700 plant species are recognized as being hyperaccumulators that have the ability to slowly take in elements like nickel, zinc, cobalt, gold, germanium and more without exhibiting toxic side-effects. Getting the metals involves burning part of the plant and separating the ashes from the metals termed ‘bio-ore’.

The bio-ore that result from phytoremediation is purer, less in weight, needs less energy to smelt, and has no sulphur compared to ores gained from conventional mining. But these benefits have not swayed the mining industry to adopt phytomining, even though it could be used as a method to ‘phytoremediate’ the excess soil that is contaminated and not used for any purpose other than to be sold and dumped at landfills.

Pic: Sustainable Minerals Institute
Pic: Sustainable Minerals Institute

The process in which this unusable soil is extracted of the toxic metals within and revegetated is phytoremediation. Powered by solar energy, environmentally friendly, and cost-effective this prevents further soil contamination, and with further research these will be enhanced.

Real world examples of phytomining include:

  • Malaysia’s Kinabalu Park, a UNESCO-listed heritage site, nickel phytoremedation with acres of leafy shrub since 2015 and cared for by local villagers.
  • The University of Queensland’s Sustainable Minerals Institute has a team within the Institute’s Centre for Mined Land Rehabilitation that has government funding to be the “world-first” study into assessing native plants ability to be hyperaccumulators.
  • The Freiburg University of Mining and Technology biologists are experimenting using reed canary grass to extract germanium, an element that is usually collected from the ashes of hard coal burning power plants and zinc ore processing, and used for electronic devices (night vision goggles, car distance measuring sensors, etc.), making PET plastic bottles appear crystal clear, and more.
  • In Bochum the Ruhr University’s Department of Molecular Genetics and Physiology are researching the capacity and ability at which a particular kind of rockcress is able to store zinc and cadmium.
New Holland Rattlepod. Photo by Mark Marathon, Wikimedia Commons.
New Holland Rattlepod. Photo by Mark Marathon, Wikimedia Commons.

With many more projects around the world underway there are also researchers hard at work finding out more hyperaccumulator plants for phytoremediation and the workings behind how they are able to extract metals from the soil. While there are kinks to be worked out phytoremediation may become a vital part of the sustainable future.

References

Adams, R., 2019. Petal to the metal: How ‘phytomining’ could transform mine waste into big $$ – Stockhead. [online] Stockhead. Available at: <https://stockhead.com.au/resources/petal-to-the-metal-how-phytomining-could-transform-mine-waste-into-big/>.

Carey, T., 2021. “Phytomining” trees can extract metal from the Earth. [online] Freethink. Available at: <https://www.freethink.com/environment/phytomining>.

Cotton, I., 2021. Phytomining could become next big thing in sustainable mining of metals. [online] Small Caps. Available at: <https://smallcaps.com.au/phytomining-next-big-thing-sustainable-mining-metals/>.

DW.COM. n.d. When plants work as miners and cleaners | DW | 18.05.2017. [online] Available at: <https://www.dw.com/en/when-plants-work-as-miners-and-cleaners/a-38882153>.

Kiwiscience.com. n.d. Phytomining. [online] Available at: <http://www.kiwiscience.com/phytomining.html>.

Milne, S., 2021. Scientists are mining metals from an unusual source — plants. [online] Grist. Available at: <https://grist.org/science/phytomining-nickel-kinabalu-park-malaysia/>.

Ruiz Leotaud, V., 2019. Phytomining is a thing in Australia. [online] MINING.COM. Available at: <https://www.mining.com/phytomining-is-a-thing-in-australia/>.

Smi.uq.edu.au. n.d. Leaders of the energy transition are calling for a sustainable source of critical metals – is phytomining the answer?. [online] Available at: <https://smi.uq.edu.au/leaders-energy-transition-sustainable-source-critical-metals-phytomining>.

UQ News. 2019. Australian plants extracting high-value metals from mining wastes. [online] Available at: <https://www.uq.edu.au/news/article/2019/07/australian-plants-extracting-high-value-metals-mining-wastes>.

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