Phytomining hyperaccumulator plants – the future of metal extraction?
Here’s a recent article on the emerging field of phytomining – the exploitation of sub-economic ore bodies using plants… in other words: a method of metal extraction revolving around the mass cultivation of so-called “metal – hyperaccumulator” plants to harvest metals such as nickel, zinc and cobalt. Would-be phytominers grow a crop of a metal-hyperaccumulating plant species, harvest the biomass and burn it to produce a bio-ore.
Yes, phytomining does also have the potential secondary application to revegetate and control erosion in otherwise decimated former strip mines, where few organisms will grow, but what does the pursuit of phytomining say about the modern human’s perpetually distanced relationship with non-human species? Is phytomining just another way for people to greedily suck prized resources from the earth to turn a profit? Or is it the next eco-groovy road to El Dorado? Or both? Surely, someone out there is feverishly seeking a way to phyto-mine gold…
Inside a lab at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, soil samples sit under a row of a glowing light bulbs hanging from a track only a short distance above them. In another room, a centrifuge hums as beakers of Nyquil-colored liquids sit on a nearby shelf. Standard white lab coats hang on hooks outside.
This generic-looking lab feels worlds away from the gritty, dusty mines of Australia—but this is where scientists hope to chart a new path for the industry here, and across the world.
If work being done at the Centre for Mined Land Rehabilitation catches on, it could mean new futures for global communities affected by resource-hungry strip-mining, and new ways for the mining industry to do business.
Australian scientists hope to accomplish this with phytomining—harvesting valuable metals from plants. Essentially, it’s growing plants containing nickel, zinc and cobalt—the bread and butter of the world’s mines, and harvesting the metals above ground, not below.
“We have identified a whole lot of new species which could be used for phytomining which weren’t previously known to science,” said Dr. Peter Erskine, one of the researchers working to make the process suitable for conventional mining companies.