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Plants can help extract valuable metals from mining waste

Posted July 16, 2019

Mining is very important for our entire civilization. We need metals in pretty much every single area of our lives. And we need more and more of them as we are building bigger cities, creating more advanced electronics and more efficient means of transportation. However, resources that we can reach are finite. Now scientists from University of Queensland found a way to gather increasingly scarce metals from waste by using native Australian plants.

Phytomining could help extracting cobalt and other metals from low quality mining waste. Image credit: Rob and Stephanie Levy via Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0)

Mining is a huge industry and the scale is absolutely colossal. However, it does have a disadvantage – the piles of waste material are colossal as well. Having in mind that recovery processes are not entirely efficient nor effective, you won’t be surprised to learn that waste material still contains a lot of valuable resources. But how can we extract them in a cost-effective manner?

Phytomining is the method that scientists would like to try. There are plants, known as hyperaccumulators, which retain metals in high concentrations after absorbing them through their roots. Phytomining is basically a practice of recovering metals from those hyperaccumulators. Australia is one of the leaders in terms of mining valuable resources. It is, however, very vulnerable when it comes to nature. This means that native plants should be used to recover metals, such as extremely valuable cobalt, from the waste material. Australia does have its own hyperaccumulators and now scientists are perfecting their method of phytomining. This could present an opportunity for a new revenue stream as well as dampen the challenges associated with our materials becoming increasingly more scarce.

 Dr Philip Nkrumah, one of the authors of the study, said: “Phytomining is an innovative solution because it complements the global supply chain for critical minerals like cobalt while promoting the circular economy by utilising mining waste. Some species of plants can contain up to one per cent of cobalt or four per cent of nickel in their shoots, translating to more than 25 per cent metal in their ash which is dubbed ‘bio-ore’”.

Extensive research in this field lead to the discovery of more than 100 hyperaccumulator plants new to science. Good thing about them is that materials extracted through phytomining are extremely pure, which makes them great for electronics that require just the highest quality of materials. And all you’d have to do is to plant hyperaccumulators in wastes, often stored in tailings facilities, then burn the plants and extract metal from the ash – it’s really not that difficult. Now we have to wait and see if industry becomes interested.


Source: University of Queensland

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