Future miners could harvest metal from plants

September 25, 2014 by Andrew Dunne, University of Queensland

Future miners could harvest metal from plants
Phytomining offers to literally extract nickel metal from plants. Here Sukaibin Sumail of Sabah Parks in Malaysia collects green nickel-rich sap (20% nickel) from a rainforest tree for laboratory analysis.
(Phys.org) —Future generations of miners could harvest metals from trees, capitalizing on the ability of some plants to isolate and accumulate metals in their shoots.

University of Queensland Sustainable Minerals Institute researcher Dr Antony van der Ent said 'hyperaccumulator' plants that could extract metals such as nickel or cobalt from the soil could be harvested for significant returns.

"A mature nickel hyperaccumulator tree can contain up to five kg of nickel metal when grown in the right conditions," Dr van der Ent said.

He said the process, known as phytomining or agromining, could involve plantations growing on mine waste or ground with ore deposits not suitable for traditional mining.

"Phytomining trials have yielded up to 200 kg of nickel per hectare per year, establishing a potential opportunity and income stream for future metal farmers in developing countries, especially with nickel worth around $19,000 a tonne," he said.

Dr van der Ent, a postdoctoral researcher with SMI's Centre for Mined Land Rehabilitation, said the technology had been scientifically proven over the past 20 years, but the mining industry had not adopted it at a significant scale.

"This may be the result of a lack of minerals industry awareness of the technology's potential or of the scientific advances that have been made in metal recovery from plants.

"Industry needs to be encouraged to adopt new technologies that have the potential to improve mine site rehabilitation outcomes and opportunities, especially in developing countries in the Tropics," he said.

Dr van der Ent said harvesting and incinerating plant biomass generated a commercial high-grade bio-ore containing 10 to 25 per cent nickel.

"Its purity means it's uniquely suited to produce organic chemical industry nickel catalysts or high-value chemicals for use in electroplating.

The SMI held the world's first Phytomining Workshop earlier in the year, where scientists, engineers and industry partners discussed the future of the unique technology.

Global phytomining experts emphasised a need to ensure the preservation of rare hyperaccumulator species and their habitats, and planned to develop a Global Hyperaccumulator Database to document key knowledge about the plants.

Explore further: Researchers identify plants that could be mined for metals

Related Stories

Researchers identify plants that could be mined for metals

November 11, 2013

(Phys.org) —Mount Kinabalu is well known to climbers and adventurers all over the world – now a University of Queensland researcher is putting the Borneo mountain region on the map for trees that contain some of the world's ...

Researchers develop method for creating much stronger nickel

October 18, 2013

(Phys.org) —A team of researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Nanjing University of Science and Technology has found a way to create an ultra fine grain (UFG) nickel with a nanolaminated structure. As the team ...

Recommended for you

Coffee-based colloids for direct solar absorption

March 22, 2019

Solar energy is one of the most promising resources to help reduce fossil fuel consumption and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions to power a sustainable future. Devices presently in use to convert solar energy into thermal ...

Paleontologists report world's biggest Tyrannosaurus rex

March 22, 2019

University of Alberta paleontologists have just reported the world's biggest Tyrannosaurus rex and the largest dinosaur skeleton ever found in Canada. The 13-metre-long T. rex, nicknamed "Scotty," lived in prehistoric Saskatchewan ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.