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Phytomining: When the metals come for technology from the field

Friday, September 8th, 2017 | Gadgets

Telephones, generators or electric motors that grow in the field: it is not that simple. But in the future important raw materials for electronic devices, solar cells, wind power plants or electric cars could come from the field. The raw materials are to be harvested. But research is still facing a number of challenges.

For several decades researchers have been using plants to pull elements from the soil. The first task was to clean soil contaminated with pollutants – this so-called phytosanation is much less expensive than removing and replacing the soils. But, so thoughtful scientists: If pollutants can be extracted from the soil with plants, then why not useful?
Phytomining involves mining and ecology
Phytomining is called this technique for the extraction of metals by means of plants, among which scientists from the Technical University Bergakademie Freiberg work. "We at the Bergakademie – the name says it – is dealing with mining. On the other hand, we are ecologists," says Hermann Heilmeier, head of the Biology / Ecology working group at the university, in conversation with Golem.de. A combination of both areas would have been obvious.

        
                
                                                
                
            
    The yield from phytomining is still relatively low – but with increasing raw material prices the process could always be worthwhile. (Graphic: Oliver Wiche)

The idea: instead of mining the raw materials in a mine, ie mining them, the work is left to the plants: they enrich the raw materials in their leaves and shoots. The plants are harvested and the raw materials extracted from the biomass. Currently, the researchers are already working on their second project in the field. They specialize in the extraction of germanium, since this element was discovered at the Bergakademie in 1886, as well as some rare earth metals.

Metals of the rare earth are not rare
Germanium or the rare earths – which are not so rare as the name implies – were well suited for phytomining, as they occur everywhere, says Heilmeier colleague Oliver Wiche Golem.de: One kilogram of any soil contains about two milligrams of germanium and 200 milligrams of rare earths. Thus, Germany is also a good place to find the elements.
However: "If an element is very evenly distributed throughout the soil, then little clumps are formed," says Wiche. This means mining is difficult. The rare earths, for example, are mined only in a few places, for example in China and the USA. Germanium is not mined at all, but is currently extracted from zinc coal or ash from coal.
The phytomedians, on the other hand, have the same distribution: they can easily handle large areas with their method.

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