There are plants that ooze metal—and we’re farming them.
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Hyperaccumulators are plants that have evolved to absorb metal, lots of metal, from the soil. These metal consuming plants come in many different kinds, and after feasting the metal remains within them—running through their vascular structures in their sap, or even their shoots, seeds, and leaves.
And a group of researchers is currently working on extracting metal from said plants—Phyllanthus rufuschaneyi, specifically. Phyllanthus rufuschaneyi is a plant that accumulates nickel, and the group of researchers reside on the island of Borneo in Malaysia.
As the demand for nickel continues to increase (nickel is an essential component of stainless steal, and its derivatives are used for things like electric car batteries or cell phones), it is crucial we look for different ways to accumulate it as mining is extremely destructive. Smelting involves tons of energy intensive healing and melting and results in tons of waste.
So how does one farm metals from these superstar plants? And how realistic is this alternative option? Find out more in this Elements.
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Down on the Farm That Harvests Metal From Plants
The plants not only collect the soil’s minerals into their bodies but seem to hoard them to “ridiculous” levels, said Alan Baker, a visiting botany professor at the University of Melbourne who has researched the relationship between plants and their soils since the 1970s. This vegetation could be the world’s most efficient, solar-powered mineral smelters. What if, as a partial substitute to traditional, energy-intensive and environmentally costly mining and smelting, the world harvested nickel plants?
Power Plants: Turning Brownfields Green
In August 2018, the team planted the first Power Plants garden, a 1000-square-metre plot on the eastern side of the White Bay Power Station. They sowed seeds of more than two dozen annual plant species, all proven phytoremediators selected for their capacity to deal with the types of toxins on the site: heavy metals, BTEX (Benzene, Toluene, Ethylbenzene) and pesticides. Some six months later, the carefully planned Garden 01 has turned into a wild meadow in which marigolds, carrots, clover, lupins, mustard and sunflowers, in particular, are flourishing.
Combining X-ray techniques for powerful insights into hyperaccumulator plants
Visually striking images (obtained at the XFM beamline) show various hyperaccumulator plants, on the cover of the April issue of New Phytologist. In the images each element is depicted in a different colour, making up a red-green-blue (RGB) image.
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