Agromining minerals is a new process for extracting large quantities of metals such as cobalt and nickel from the sap and leaves of rare plants known as hyperaccumulators. Australian scientists Dr Antony van der Ent and Associate Professor Peter Erskine from UQ’s Sustainable Minerals Institute’s Centre for Mined Land Rehabilitation, are leading research on novel ways to extract critical elements, such as nickel and cobalt, needed for lithium-ion batteries and other high-tech demands. They have already established a test farm in Malaysia and it’s hoped the technology will one day provide poor communities with a new source of income, while also helping to rehabilitate former mining sites. Listen to a podcast on Future Tense for more information or contact Dr Antony van der Ent or the UQ Team.
Nickel is the first focus of Agromining Minerals from Plants
Around the world about 700 plants accumulate minerals in their leaves. (hyperaccumulator). The UQ team have found a further 150 plants. One species, the tropical Pycnandra acuminata grows in Indonesia and able to accumulate 4% nickel in their leaves, translating to over 300 kg of nickel per hectare per year in harvested biomass. The tree is grown, the branches cropped, then burnt and the ash is then about 40% nickel.
With nickel expected to trade at $24,286.20 USD/MT by the end of this quarter, that is revenue of $7,200 per ha.
A unique characteristic of the bio-sourced nickel is the high purity affected by the metal crop, with the ashed biomass containing 20–30% nickel and few of the impurities usually associated with nickel ores. This makes these bio-ores ideally suited for specific applications, particularly the electrochemical industry producing rechargeable batteries.
Other Hypoaccumulator Plants
Hyperaccumulator plants are now known for elements that pose a major risk to human health, such as arsenic and cadmium, and for nutritional elements such as selenium and zinc.
Why The Lack of Commercialisation of Agromining minerals
Two decades after its inception and numerous successful experiments, commercial phytomining has not yet become a reality. To build the case for the minerals industry, UQ says a large-scale demonstration is needed to identify operational risks and provide “real-life” evidence for profitability.
The research has been ongoing since 2015 Agromining: Farming for Metals in the Future? Antony van der Ent, Alan J. M. Baker, Roger D. Reeves, Rufus L. Chaney, Christopher W. N. Anderson, John A. Meech, Peter D. Erskine, Marie-Odile Simonnot, James Vaughan, Jean Louis Morel, Guillaume Echevarria, Bruno Fogliani, Qiu Rongliang, and David R. Mulligan. Environmental Science & Technology 2015 49 (8), 4773-4780 DOI: 10.1021/es506031u