New Crop Can
Mine Nickel at a Low Cost
By Lupe Chavez
January 9, 2002
Mining for nickel now requires little
more than a green thumb, thanks to a patented process created by the
Agricultural Research Service and
Viridian Resources, L.L.C., of Houston, Texas. Metal-loving plants can extract
nickel and other metals from the earth without machinery.
ARS and Viridian partnered with the University
of Maryland, Oregon State University and
the United Kingdoms University of
Sheffield to show that phytomining--the use of plants to extract useful
amounts of metal from soil--is commercially feasible. Utilizing certain plant
species that accumulate nickel from contaminated soils, scientists developed an
environmentally friendly alternative to traditional mining techniques.
ARS agronomist Rufus Chaney, working with Scott Angle (Maryland), Alan J.M.
Baker (Sheffield), Yin Li (Viridian), and Richard Roseberg (OSU), targeted a
number of plant species that hyperaccumulate, or recover unusually high amounts
of metals through their roots. By evaluating several hundred strains of
hyperaccumulating plants for favorable genetic characteristics, the team
developed the first commercial crop capable of hyperaccumulating nickel, cobalt
and other metals. This hay like crop is burned after harvest to create an
energy byproduct, and the ash is a lucrative source of metal.
Phytomining creates a win-win scenario: the inexpensive cleansing of
contaminated soil and the production of a valuable cash crop. Phytomining on
contaminated soils is more lucrative than growing traditional crops on the same
land. Harvests from low-grade pastures or forests grown on such land would
fetch about $50 to $100 per hectare per year. But a phytomining crop growing on
the same land would produce an annual 400 kilograms of nickel per hectare worth
more than $2,000 even at todays depressed market price for nickel. After
selling the byproduct energy, the annual per-hectare value of a phytomining
crop exceeds $3,000.
Additionally, the crop can tap the vast mineral deposits in the United
States and other countries that are unavailable through todays
conventional mining techniques.
ARS is the U.S. Department of
Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.