Phytomining and the Plants That ‘Bleed’ Nickel

In the heart of Sulawesi, an Indonesian island, is a small mining town by the name of Sorowako. The town is one of the biggest areas for mining nickel in the world, with one firm extracting 5% of the world’s supply of nickel from this one location.

Since 2004, Aiyen Tjoa, a lecturer and soil biologist, has been on a mission to locate rare plants that can absorb nickel from nickel-rich surroundings. The plants have the potential to absorb high amounts of the mineral from the soil and store it in high quantities. The plants could also offer an alternative nickel source, as they could be mined, offering the potential to prevent the destruction of the ecosystem caused by mineral extract.

These plants are called nickel hyper-accumulators and can hold at the minimum 1,000 mcg of nickel per 1 gram of dried leaf. The plants store the mineral in vacuoles, which is an organelle for storage in the cell. The nickel is mainly stored in their sap, roots, leaves and shoots. Some plant species such as Phyllantus balgoyii, which is found in Malaysia, have a bright blue-green colored sap as a result of extremely high nickel content. Other species such as Alyssum murale, indigenous to Italy, can absorb nearly 30,000 nickel micrograms in each gram of dried leaf.

To date, about 450 species of nickel-loving plants have been recorded globally. Many of them grow in places with lower nickel deposits and less plant diversity such as Malaysia with 24 species, New Caledonia with 65, Southern Europe with 45 and Cuba with a record 130 plant varieties. Strangely enough, Indonesia, which has the biggest nickel deposits globally and is a very biodiverse region in the world, has few of these plants.

Before Tjoa discovered two species in Sorowako in 2008, the quest had been a disappointing and painstaking research journey. She found that the indigenous plants Knema matanesis and Sacotheca celebica could amass between 1,000 to 5,000 mcg of nickel per every gram of dried leaf. However, in comparison with other nickel hyper-accumulators, the two species were at best moderate in hyperaccumulation.

Tjoa’s research is still ongoing though, as she searches for plants that could take up at least 10,000 mcg per gram. At this threshold, cultivating the plant for mineral extraction becomes economically feasible. This process is referred to as phytomining. Nickel hyperaccumulators collect nickel, which is a valuable mineral that is toxic if it remains in the soil. Nickel is used to make products such as electric car batteries and kitchen taps.

It is estimated that a nickel-loving plant such as the Phyllantus balgoyii can produce around 120 kilograms of nickel annually per hectare. Nickel extraction in this case involves the shoots being pruned (shoots have highest nickel concentrations) then burned. The nickel is then separated from the ash. The cultivation of these nickel-loving plants is carbon neutral.

As compared to traditional mining methods, phytomining has substantial environmental advantages. To extract the mineral in Sorowako, open-pit mining is used. This method produces waste materials that are toxic, and improper management of these mercury and arsenic-laden wastes may cause leaking into the surrounding environment.

Additionally, phytomining may also help rehabilitate land that’s been mined so that eventually the land can be used to cultivate normal crops. Tjoa hopes that despite the reluctance she faces now, phytomining will be adopted in the future as a safer way to mine nickel that produces less toxic waste and preserves the ecosystem.

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