Mining Nickel From Plants Is Possible & Could Cut CO2 Emissions

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Mining Nickel From Plants Is Possible & Could Cut CO2 Emissions

I had a friend to share an interesting article from Mining.com with me. The article asked this question: “Can plants that suck metal from the ground replace mining?“It’s an interesting thought. We eat plants every day because of their mineral content, but do we actively grow plants that contain huge amounts of minerals, such as nickel, and extract that mineral for industrial purposes? This is agro-mining.

The article noted that miners have this saying: if it can not be cultivated, it must be extracted. Yet mining is devastating to our planet and environment. If we are to solve this, we must use renewable technology, which is dependent on getting more and more of these minerals and metals from the earth. It sounds like a vicious circle – and it is – but the idea of ​​growing plants specifically to absorb the metals through the soil is quite inventive.

That is what agro-mining is. The article shared a video from Bloomberg who examined whether agro-mining would ever be scalable enough to reduce traditional mining. The video explained that the demand for metals is rising more and more sharply, especially in the year after the pandemic started. Everything from household appliances to making electric cars to building bridges or highways requires metals.

Nickel mining has been on the rise since the early 2000s, mainly due to China’s economic boom. The advent of electric vehicles also plays a key role in the demand for nickel.

The video also noted that researchers from around the world have been engaged in agro-mining for the past 30 years. Agro-agriculture, also known as phytomining, is simply growing plants that can store metals such as zinc and then later harvest them. Researchers have been working to recover zinc, rare earth elements and even cobalt using these methods.

The video noted that mining has many devastating effects on the environment, ranging from acid rain to air pollution. In 2020, Elon Musk announced that Tesla was looking for nickel that was extracted sustainably. Yvonne Yue Li med Bloomberg News pointed out that nickel, not steel, has the highest CO2 emission intensity.

“You may think that steel is the most polluting metal when it comes to CO2 emission intensity, but in fact nickel has the highest CO2 intensity of all metals. CO 2 emissions per tonne of metal for nickel production average around 18 tonnes CO2 per tonne of metal. “

Nickel processing, smelting and refining also results in the highest CO2 emissions of mining metals. Li noted that the mining industry is trying to focus on making nickel mining more sustainable. She pointed to an example of plants that use renewable energy and hybrid systems as a fuel source. However, the mining industry as a whole is quite slow compared to other industries.

Mining is just a very energy-intensive activity. As mentioned in the video, if there is a mine with 1% copper, 90% of the materials will be waste materials.

The video also interviewed Dr. Antony Van Der Ent from the University of Queensland, who is one of the key researchers in agro-mining.

Hyperaccumulators are a rare group of plants that have the unusual ability to accumulate very high concentrations of certain metals in their living shoots, that is, in their leaves. We know of about 700 of them that occur worldwide.

“And most of them are known for nickel – about 500 of them. We know hyperaccumulators for a wide variety of metals, including thallium and zinc, and copper, cobalt, manganese. But we keep discovering more of these plants, no matter where we research.

“So there are about 350,000 plant species around the world, and we think there are more hyperaccumulators waiting to be discovered.”

How do these plants accumulate metals? A nickel hyperaccumulative plant literally consumes the metal from the soil through its roots. It then stores the metal in the skin on its leaves or biomass. Once the plants have been harvested, the biomass is dried and incinerated. The ash formed by burning the plants is ready for treatment to create a bio-ore. Nickel is then recovered from the bio-ore.

The ash contained up to 20% nickel, which is more than any nickel ore on earth. The video shared exactly how it is treated or extracted from the ashes. The video also goes into detail about the plants, how they are bred and grown. These plants are also used to decontaminate contaminated soil that has huge amounts of lead, zinc or other metals in it. One of the plants shown in the video has leaves that can contain up to 4% nickel in dry weight. Burning the plants uses energy, but the team’s test has found that the overall agro-mining process uses significantly less energy than conventional mining procedures.

You can watch the whole video here.

I think this is an ingenious way to recycle metals (and minerals) used for industrial purposes as well as other purposes such as health or medicine. I think we need a company that will do what Tesla did for the automotive industry to figure out a way to scale up agrimine operations. This could revolutionize the mining industry while helping to clean up soil that has been contaminated with metals such as lead. We will keep an eye on what is happening in this sector and if it becomes cost competitive with conventional mining at some point on a decent scale.

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