Could phytomining replace the mining industry?

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A typical nickel mine
A typical nickel mine

 

phytomining
Van der Ent’s nickel phytomine in Malaysia

What is phytomining?

Phytomining is the process by which metals are extracted from plants instead of mined out of the Earth. There are around 700 species of plants known as “hyperaccumulators” that overtime suck the soil dry of metals like nickel, zinc, cobalt and even gold.

This might seem as a far-fetched dream, however in Malaysia locals have been harvesting nickel since 2015. This nickel mine ore is the first carbon neutral mine, set in Malaysia’s Kinabalu Park its bushy fields are a far cry from the commonplace wasteland dumps mines usually are.

How it works:

The leafy shrubs are shaved off once or twice a year (about a foot of growth from 20-foot-tall plants) then the crop is burnt and an ashy “bio-ore” is produced that is up tot 25% nickel.

“We can now demonstrate that metal farms can produce between 150 to 250 kilograms of nickel per hectare (170 to 280 pounds per acre), annually,”—Antony van der Ent, a senior research fellow at Australia’s University of Queensland whose thesis work spurred the Malaysia trial.

This first trial in Malaysia was conducted by an Australian Research fellow—Anthony van der Ent—who hopes to show that the mining industry can be revolutionized in a more sustainable AND commercial way. Phytomining can also be used to restore degraded land from strip-mining, and it can be adapted to each regions’ hyperaccumulator species.

“At this stage, phytomining can go full-scale for nickel immediately, while phytomining for cobalt, thallium, and selenium is within reach.” —Antony van der Ent

 

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