Now Scientists Can Extract Minerals From Plants

Super plants can serve as a great alternative source for metals.

Rock minerals from mines.

(Julija Sh /

When people think of a typical mineral mine, it is probably underground. It is unlikely that the imagery of plants and soft greenery would cross their minds. Now, new explorations into phytomining may change that perspective. 

Instead of traditionally mining metals like nickel, iron or cobalt from rocks, phytomining uses plants as an alternative source for these minerals, according to a undefined. Using plants to extract metals can have significant environmental benefits over rock mining. 

In a company blog, global consulting and management firm, McKinsey & Company, stressed that traditional mining is responsible for 4-7 percent of greenhouse admission and crushing rocks for metal extraction can release harmful radioactive elements and waste material into the surrounding environment. That’s why a new way to extract metals is vitally important.

Phytomining was first studied in 1983 by Rufus L. Chaney, an agronomist for the US Department of Agriculture, according to Grist Media.  But it has not yet been adapted by the metals industry. 

Indonesian soil scientist, Aiyen Tjoa from Tadulako University in Central Sulawesithe, told The BBC that’s because no one has yet to really explore it. Which is why in 2004, Tjoa took her research to Sorowako, a small town in Indonesia with one of the largest nickel mining areas, to study plants that survived years of mining. 

According to the BBC, she wondered why these plants had survived harsh mining conditions and toxic soils. She brought samples back to her lab and found that these super plants were more than just surviving, they were thriving.

The plants were absorbing and storing nickel from the soil. Large amounts of metals kill most plants, but these, known as hyperaccumulators, were learning to adapt.  If these plants were retaining metal, that meant that science could find a way to extract the minerals for use and quite frankly, scientists easily did. When the shoots are harvested and burned, the metals are separated from the plant material in the ashes. 

Tjoa returned to Sorowako and spent years searching for new hyperaccumulator species. Hyperaccumulators look like any other plant and rummaging through vegetation to spot one is a painstaking task.

After a plant is deemed a possibility, there’s a simple test paper that turns pink when placed against the leaf of a hyperaccumulator plant. Two local Indonesian plants, sarcotheca celebica and knema matanensis, were found but there are many others still to be discovered.

Tjoa’s research deservedly caught the attention of Satria Bijasksana, a professor of rock magnetism who knew his expertise could help  her further accelerate her efforts. Together, they designed an experiment to understand magnetic susceptibility when plants accumulate more nickel. Their research, published in The Journal of Geochemical Exploration, led to the discovery of two new species of hyperaccumulators, suggesting high-potentials for adapting phytomining into our ecosystem. 

However, there is still a long way to go and Tjoa continues to bring awareness of its long-term environmental benefits to the mining industry in Indonesia.  Although she hasn’t heard back from the Indonesian government according to the BBC, she is working with overseas mining companies to implement phytomining as an alternative source for nickel. 

These plants are also helping clean soils from harmful amounts of minerals and can rescue abandoned mining sites into restored earth. This research serves as the bedrock for the potential that plants can give to the mining industry, offering great advantages to our ecosystem and towards building a more sustainable future.

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