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Thread: Phyto-mining

  1. #1 Phyto-mining 
    Forum Radioactive Isotope skeptic's Avatar
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    Reference : New Scientist : 22 March page 48

    I have often been in arguments with people who are pessimists in relation to the future of humanity. I am the opposite, an optimist. I believe that, barring some weird accident, humanity will prosper even more in the future than it has in the past.

    One of the most frequently used arguments of the pessimists is resource depletion. The idea that we are using up the earth's resources, and will run out, leading to the collapse of our current civilisation. My argument has always been that humanity has, over the past few hundred years, become better and better at exploiting, recycling, finding new sources etc. To the point where, every few decades, the estimated exploitable reserves of various resources have to be raised, not dropped. This is a matter of history and is accurate.

    This has recently been shown for natural gas, with the massive increase in extractable shale gas. What about minerals? Are they the limiting factor?

    So I was interested to read of the idea of phyto-mining in the New Scientist. When a mine cannot extract a mineral, because the concentration is too low, a suitable plant is grown in the mineral rich (relatively) soil, and that mineral is concentrated in its leaves. So far, this is mostly true for nickel, but will probably become true for more minerals with more research. So far, 400 species of plant are known to accumulate nickel. In one case, 500 kilograms of plant ash from plants grown over a nickel rich site allowed 100 kiograms of nickel metal to be harvested. One shrub in the Philippines was found with 9% nickel in its sap. Nickel can be phyto-mined at levels of 0.1% nickel in the soil, whereas it requires 1 to 1.5% richness to permit conventional mining.

    An additional advantage is bioremediation. Soils from mines may be so contaminated that they are not able to support most plant life. But growing the tolerant and accumulating plants will permit the metals to be removed from soils and harvested instead of being a hazard.

    This technology has been arrested by a strong patent, held by a company called Veridian, which stopped people using the technology (presumably due to the need to pay royalties??). But the patent is due to expire next year and interest is rising.

    If I recall correctly, as a rough rule of thumb, each time the extractable concentration of a mineral drops ten fold, the total resource available increases ten fold. So, for nickel at least, being able to extract it using plants, at one tenth the level previously extractable, will increase its total exploitable resource level by (very approximately) ten times.

    If we can do it for nickel, it appears to me that it is just a matter of time before we are harvesting minerals of many kinds, at one tenth the concentration previously extractable. Is this a total answer to those pessimists who claim mineral resource limitations will destroy civilisation?


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    I'm really keen on phyto stuff. It's all about choices really. If we made different choices about processing wastes, sewage being the classic example, there are many problems of resource depletion that would more or less disappear. That is, if we kept on recycling what we've already extracted, we'd only need top-up quantities from mining. Using reed beds and other plantings as part of sewage processing means we could have near pure water coming out of the end of the process, and we'd have plant materials extracting and making available all those heavy metals that currently make simple sewage sludge unsuitable for use as fertiliser in food production, even using it in parks and playing fields has to be managed carefully in order to avoid poisoning the soil for many plants or making playing field dusts dangerous to hockey /lacrosse /soccer /whatever players.

    Can't say I'm impressed with shale gas and coal seam gas and similar extraction processes, though. When we're talking about resources, we're better off taking a second look, maybe a first look, at what we've got available without interfering with processes we're unsure about. In the case of extracting gases from underground, we know we've already over-depleted underground water storages in every basin we know about. We really don't need to be taking more or damaging what's left when there are easier, better alternatives available. Making the most of what's right there in front of us ought to be the first option. D-I-Y Hydro - Landline - ABC

    If more communities did these sorts of things, they'd be cheaper and easier to do and there'd be a huge reduction in the loads carried by transmission lines if communities along the way were participating in adding into as well as taking from the grid. One town near a creek has a small hydro system, the next one along has a few turbines, and everyone everywhere has appropriate solar would mean that transmission becomes a lot less of a problem. And I really like the idea that most communities could disengage from the grid during bushfires or large storms and only a few, rather than tens of thousands in the grid area, would actually be deprived of power. I'll admit that living in a huge country with widely separated townships might make my attitudes a bit different from people who actually live closer to each other, but there are similar considerations, with varying suitable strategies, in all localities.

    (I have to admit I have a bit of distaste for the idea that our role in the world is to blow stuff up or dig it out or cut it down. We can do those things, but I see no reason why that should always be the first option. Seems a bit Bronze Age or otherwise old-fashioned to me.)

    The idea of deliberately extracting and concentrating minerals through plants sounds eminently sensible.

    Is this a total answer to those pessimists who claim mineral resource limitations will destroy civilisation?
    Well, it's true that blindly extracting and squandering a vital mineral resource like phosphorus will destroy civilisation - we can't live without it. The question is whether we allow ourselves to run headlong into a shortage (and be held hostage by whoever is holding the last of the unmined resource) or whether we'll be sensible and make the most of what we've already got and what we mine from now on. The "shortage" is really a consequence of industrial scale agriculture and trade in crops and foodstuffs rather than the phosphorus itself - it's actually abundant - just not in the dig it up, spread it around, waste the results manner that we've been using it for the last couple of centuries.

    Personally, I think it's near a sin to allow food wastes into landfill. They should all be composted. Whether it's in backyards or in communal facilities makes no difference. Every nutrient, phosphorus especially, should be conserved and reused by our agricultural/ commercial/ industrial processes just as much as it is in nature. It might be harder to do it consciously and deliberately, but we can do it.


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    I'm thinking botanical survey around the Chernobyl site. Which plants are helping clean that up fastest? Is there any reason phyto-mining can't be applied to nuclear fuels?
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    As a clean up method....sure.

    That being said we'll be a lot better off when our current capitalist- industrial models include life cycle cost and recycling design considerations into their manufacturing, cost and use.
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  6. #5  
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    OK, so where is the commercialization of phytomining methods if it is so effective?
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    Dan

    As I pointed out in my first post, there is an obstructive patent on phyto-mining, which expires next year. Hopefully, after that we will see it commercialised.
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    Hi sceptic, I am also an optimist but with reservations. I have seen humanity at its best and worst and we can be pretty horrible as a species. However, with regard to the O.P., 500 kg of plant ash giving rise to 100 kg of nickel sounds pretty good. However, what about the energetic needs of the plants, how long do they need to be grown? What is the impact on the environment? As a recovery method for low levels of nickel, or other less reactive metals (e.g. copper) it sounds good, but how much nickel and copper are needed by industrial processes? I don't know the answer to any of these questions, but I hope you are correct in your optimism.
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  9. #8  
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    Jimmy

    I really cannot answer your questions. I posted this on the back of a New Scientist article, and claim no expertise beyond what I can read in that article. However, it is clear that the technology is still young, and more development is required. A better question, IMHO, is whether the technology can be extended to other metals. Even to remediating spills of nuclear waste. That remains to be seen, but there is cause for optimism.

    One thing I picked up in another article a few years back, is that some bacteria can sequester metals. Bearing this in mind, there seems no reason (to me) why the relevant genes cannot be grafted into appropriate plants to make very efficient metal sequestering phyto-miners.
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    Thanks for the answer sceptic. I have heard of low levels of copper being recovered by phytomining, with the carbon from burning the plants presumably displacing the elemental copper from copper salts. Bioloeaching seems to be a faster solution (in ideal conditions) given the faster growth time of bacteria in comparison to plant growth.
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  11. #10  
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    New species of metal-eating plant discovered in the Philippines -- ScienceDaily

    Sorry about resurrecting what otherwise might be a dead thread. But I came across the reference above which is pertinent. A new plant in the Philippines that can accumulate very substantial amounts of nickel, and possibly other metals also.
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  12. #11  
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    I expect we might see quite a few of these items popping up from now on. Once the idea gets around, there'll be all sorts of enterprises that are interested and the supply of potential PhDs looking for interesting topics for a thesis never runs out.
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  13. #12  
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    http://jdmlm.ub.ac.id/index.php/jdmlm/article/view/8/13

    J OURNAL OF D EGRADED AND M INING L ANDS M ANAGEMENT
    ISSN: 2339-076X, Volume 1, Number 1 (October 2013): 21-26
    Research Article
    The potential use of indigenous nickel hyperaccumulators for small-scale
    mining in The Philippines
    E.S. Fernando 1 , M.O. Quimado 1 , L.C. Trinidad 2 , A.I. Doronila 3,*
    1
    Department of Forest Biological Sciences, College of Forestry and Natural Resources, The University of the Philippines –
    Los Baños College, 4031 Laguna, Philippines
    2
    Central Analytical Services Laboratory,National Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology,The University of the
    Philippines – Los Baños College
    3
    School of Chemistry, University of Melbourne, Victoria 3010, Australia
    *corresponding author: adoro@unimelb.edu.au
    Abstract : Uptake of nickel and three other heavy metals (copper, cobalt, and chromium) was examined in 33
    species of the common and rare native vascular plants growing in an ultramafic area currently subjected to
    mining in Zambales Province, Luzon, Philippines. Leaf tissue samples were initially screened in the field using
    filter paper impregnated with dimethylglyoxime (1% solution in 70% ethyl alcohol) and later analyzed by atomic
    absorption spectroscopy. One species was found to be a hypernickelophore (>10,000 μg/g), eight species were
    nickel hyperaccumulators (>1,000 μg/g), nineteen species were hemi-accumulators (>100-1,000 μg/g), and five
    species were non-accumulators (<100 μg/g). This paper significantly adds to the list of hyperaccumulator species
    first reported for the Philippines in 1992. The findings will be discussed in context of using indigenous species
    for post mining ecological restoration and nickel phytoextraction in small-scale mining in the Philippines..
    Here is another one from China.
    Bioaccumulation of Heavy Metals by Submerged Macrophytes: Looking for Hyperaccumulators in Eutrophic Lakes - Environmental Science & Technology (ACS Publications)
    To directly select submerged macrophytes with high accumulation capability from the field, 24 eutrophic lakes along the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River were investigated in the study. These eutrophic lakes have large amounts of heavy metals in both water and sediments because of human activities. The results showed that Najas marina is a hyperaccumulator of As and Cd, Ceratophyllum demersum is a hyperaccumulator of Co, Cr, and Fe, and Vallisneria natans is a hyperaccumulator of Pb. Strong positive correlations were found between concentrations of heavy metals in tissues of submerged macrophytes, probably because of coaccumulation of heavy metals. However, for most heavy metals, no significant correlations were found between submerged macrophytes and their surrounding environments. In conclusion, N. marina, C. demersum, and V. natans are good candidate species for removing heavy metals from eutrophic lakes.

    It is like I said earlier. People have actually known that bacteria and plants can digest, concentrate, and accumulate minerals for a while.
    One traditional way of sampling an area for traces of gold is by burning horsetail rushes and assaying the ashes. The problem so far has been the economics of using plants for extraction or remediation generally fail, mostly because it is a slower process.

    See the disadvantages of bioleaching section in this Wiki article for an brief introduction to what I mean.
    Bioleaching - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    I hope the research pays off and biomining methods become more economically efficient, but that is a hope for the future and not (INMHO) a present fact.
    Last edited by dan hunter; May 10th, 2014 at 09:15 PM. Reason: spelling mistake
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  14. #13  
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    From the opening paragraph of the opening post, skeptic made clear he was talking about the future. He was clear that this was a technique in its infancy. He did not present its success as a "present fact". You are entitle to your pessimism, but it would be more accurate to present it as an independent thought, not as repudiation of a claim that skeptic never made.
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  15. #14  
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    Quote Originally Posted by John Galt View Post
    From the opening paragraph of the opening post, skeptic made clear he was talking about the future. He was clear that this was a technique in its infancy. He did not present its success as a "present fact". You are entitle to your pessimism, but it would be more accurate to present it as an independent thought, not as repudiation of a claim that skeptic never made.
    John, I was not disagreeing with Skeptic about it being in the future, I was agreeing with him, and I thought tagging it with In My Humble Opinion indicated it was my independent thought.
    My only quibble with anything Skeptic said was his statement that the use of phytomining was only being blocked by a patent claim.
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  16. #15  
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    Quote Originally Posted by dan hunter View Post
    John, I was not disagreeing with Skeptic about it being in the future, I was agreeing with him, and I thought tagging it with In My Humble Opinion indicated it was my independent thought.
    My only quibble with anything Skeptic said was his statement that the use of phytomining was only being blocked by a patent claim.
    My apologies for misinterpreting your intent. Many people, including myself, when they say "in my humble opinion, mean" - "I know a darn sight more about this than you and you really ought to pay attention to what I say next, since it's damn well gospel".
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    In my case, I know damn well that I am not an expert. That is why I have limited myself to material from the references I have posted. This applies to my statement about the blocking patent. I have no way of knowing how important that is, except for what is stated in my reference.
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  18. #17  
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    Quote Originally Posted by John Galt View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by dan hunter View Post
    John, I was not disagreeing with Skeptic about it being in the future, I was agreeing with him, and I thought tagging it with In My Humble Opinion indicated it was my independent thought.
    My only quibble with anything Skeptic said was his statement that the use of phytomining was only being blocked by a patent claim.
    My apologies for misinterpreting your intent. Many people, including myself, when they say "in my humble opinion, mean" - "I know a darn sight more about this than you and you really ought to pay attention to what I say next, since it's damn well gospel".
    OH, you mean IMHO is sarcastic? Thanks John, I really never got that part of it and took it as a simple expression, which is odd because I think I usually do sarcasm well.
    Thanks for warning me that you are really being sarcastic and insincere when you say it.
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  19. #18  
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    Quote Originally Posted by skeptic View Post
    In my case, I know damn well that I am not an expert. That is why I have limited myself to material from the references I have posted. This applies to my statement about the blocking patent. I have no way of knowing how important that is, except for what is stated in my reference.
    Skeptic, I am not claiming to be an expert either, but I have had a bit of experience around mines and resource extraction industries. The players in mining for minerals and oil are very hard headed business people. They don't like wasting money and one of the largest expenses for smaller mines is the cost of closing a mine. Sometimes companies will hire a permanent caretaking crew after the actual mining operation is complete so they can claim their mine is still open and it is just to avoid the costs of cleaning up a closed mine.

    The article from China I mentioned is talking about using submerged plants to clean contaminated water. This is an idea I like a lot.
    Last edited by dan hunter; May 11th, 2014 at 09:32 PM.
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    AI's Have More Fun Bad Robot's Avatar
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    The problem with everybody being an optimist, is that nobody plans for all the bad stuff that could happen and if it can happen it usually will happen, it's all just a matter of time. We are headed for climate change that will adversely affect all life on this planet. Just maybe we will find some way to mitigate the damage before it gets to bad, but I won't be holding my breath hoping for the best. I won't be around that long, but if I had children I'd be very worried about them and their children.

    All this stuff about improved mining capabilities is small stuff, but I like it and I am optimistic about it.
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  21. #20  
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    Optimistic pessimism or pessimistic optimism.
    I try to think of it as realism.
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    Quote Originally Posted by dan hunter View Post
    Optimistic pessimism or pessimistic optimism.
    I try to think of it as realism.
    While objectivity is good, things get done in the world because leaders with vision cause things to be done. We had better hope that the leaders we follow are optimists, rather than pessimists.
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  23. #22  
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    Quote Originally Posted by John Galt View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by dan hunter View Post
    Optimistic pessimism or pessimistic optimism.
    I try to think of it as realism.
    While objectivity is good, things get done in the world because leaders with vision cause things to be done. We had better hope that the leaders we follow are optimists, rather than pessimists.
    I'd be hoping for a realist that knows how to express himself optimistically. Humans tend to improve things when disaster happens, but what happens when the disaster is world wide and billions of people die off. We will not just recover and go back to the way things were.
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  24. #23  
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    With billions dead the demand on our resources is now greatly reduced.
    With billions dead we have learned a powerful lesson that even cretinous, head in the sand AGW deniers cannot ignore.
    With billions dead we have been reminded of how fragile our tenure on this planet is.
    With billions dead we have the opportunity to build again from the ground up.

    That's the optimistic way to look at billions dead.

    Optimism is about never giving up.

    Do not go gentle into that good night,
    Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


    Dylan Thomas
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    Hitler was an optimist.
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  26. #25  
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    Quote Originally Posted by John Galt View Post

    Optimism is about never giving up.

    Do not go gentle into that good night,
    Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


    Dylan Thomas
    Actually, it matter not one jot how much you rage. The end result is the same either way. Personally, when the inevitable happens to me, I want it to happen when I am happily sound asleep, and quite, quite relaxed.
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  27. #26  
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    Quote Originally Posted by skeptic View Post
    Personally, when the inevitable happens to me, I want it to happen when I am happily sound asleep, and quite, quite relaxed.
    "What a horrible way to die." -- Worf
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