Phytomining describes the exploitation of sub-economic ore bodies using plants. Would-be phytominers grow a crop of a metal-hyperaccumulating plant species, harvest the biomass and burn it to produce a bio-ore. The first phytomining experiments were carried out by Larry Nicks and Michael Chambers at the US Bureau of Mines, Reno, Nevada using the nickel (Ni) hyperaccumulator Streptanthus polygaloides and it was found that a yield of 100 kg/ha of sulphur-free Ni could be produced.

The Ni-hyperaccumulators Alyssum bertolonii from Italy and Berkheya coddii from South Africa have even greater potential to extract Ni, because of their high biomass and high Ni content. Soil conditioners, particularly N and P amendments, greatly enhance Ni phytomining. On many ultramafic soils, Berkheya coddii can yield over 20 t/ha with a Ni concentration of 1% in the dry matter.

Assoc. Prof. Chris Anderson, Massey University has also induced plants to hyperaccumulate gold by adding lixivants to the substrate. Such lixivants have induced Brassica juncea to accumulate gold to concentrations of over 100 mg/kg gold on a dry matter basis.

Unusual hyperaccumulation (>500 mg/kg dry mass) of thallium (Tl) has been determined in Iberis intermedia and Biscutella laevigata (Brassicaceae) from southern France. The Iberis contained up to 0.4% Tl (4000 mg/kg) in the whole-plant dry matter and the Biscutella over 1.5%. Phytomining using Iberis, could produce a net return of $ US 1200/ha (twice the return from a crop of wheat) with a biomass yield of 10 t/ha containing 0.08% Tl in dry matter. The break-even point (net yield of $ US 500/ha) would require 170 mg/kg (0.017%) Tl in dry matter.

Phytomining has the following unique features:

(1) It offers the possibility of exploiting ores or mineralised soils that are uneconomic by conventional
mining methods.

(2) ‘Bio-ores’ are virtually sulphur-free, and their smelting requires less energy than sulphidic ores.

(3) The metal content of a bio-ore is usually much greater than that of a conventional ore and therefore requires less storage space despite the lower density of a bio-ore.

(4) Phytomining is a ‘green’ technology that should appeal to the conservation movement as an alternative to opencast mining of low-grade ores.

Currently, phytomining has only limited potential application (see our 2015 article below). However, he economic viability of phytomining improves as the price of metals increases. With China’s booming economy, metal prices are set to increase further. The financial attractiveness of phytoming should increase, particularly if it can be combined with other technologies such as phytoremediation and biofuel production.

Phytomined nickel. Ingots of nickel that were phytomined using the nickel hyperaccumulator Berkheya coddii.This species could be used to commercially extract nickel from extensive areas of low-fertility ultramafic soils. The Phyto-DSS (below) determines the viability and nature of the operation.
Phytomining and the Phyto-DSS The Phyto-DSS calculates the biogeochemical and economic feasibility of phytomining. The Phyto-DSS can be used to optimise land management strategies, such as time of planting, time of harvest and the effects of soil conditioners.

Phytomining-related publications

Robinson BH, Anderson CWN, Dickinson NM (2015). Phytoextraction: where's the action? Journal of Geochemical Exploration 151,34-40.

Robinson BH, Bañuelos GS, Conesa HM, Evangelou MWH, Schulin R (2009). The phytomanagement of trace elements in soil. Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences 28(4), 240-266.

Robinson BH, Fernández JE, Madejón P, Marañón T, Murillo JM, Green SR, Clothier BE (2003). Phytoextraction: an assessment of biogeochemical and economic viability. Plant and Soil 249(1), 117-125.

Anderson CWN, Brooks RR, Chiarucci A, LaCoste CJ, Leblanc M, Robinson BH, Simcock R, Stewart RB (1999). Phytomining for nickel, thallium and gold, Journal of Geochemical Exploration 67, 407-415.

Brooks RR, Anderson C, Stewart RB, Robinson BH (1999). Phytomining: growing a crop of a metal. Biologist 46(5), 201-205.

Brooks RR, Chambers MF, Nicks LJ, Robinson BH (1998). Phytomining. Trends in Plant Science 3(9), 359-362.

Robinson BH, Brooks RR, Howes AW, Kirkman JH, Gregg PEH (1997). The potential of the high-biomass nickel hyperaccumulator Berkheya coddii for phytoremediation and phytomining. Journal of Geochemical Exploration 60, 115-126.

Robinson BH, Chiarucci A, Brooks RR, Petit D, Kirkman JH, Gregg PEH, de Dominicis V (1997). The nickel hyperaccumulator plant Alyssum bertolonii as a potential agent for phytoremediation and the phytomining of nickel. Journal of Geochemical Exploration 59, 75-86.

Other phytomining publications

Nowack B, Schulin R, Robinson BH (2006). A critical assessment of chelant-enhanced metal phytoextraction. Environmental Science and Technology. 40(17), 5525-5532.

Keeling SM, Stewart RB, Anderson CWN, Robinson BH (2003). Nickel and cobalt phytoextraction by the hyperaccumulator Berkheya coddii: implications for polymetallic phytomining and phytoremediation. International Journal of Phytoremediation 5(3), 235-244.

LaCoste C, Robinson BH, Brooks RR (2001). Thallium uptake by vegetables: Its significance for human health, phytoremediation and phytomining. Journal of plant nutrition 24, 1205–1216.

Brooks RR, Robinson BH, Howes AW, Chiarucci A (2001). An evaluation of Berkheya coddii Roessler and Alyssum bertolonii Desv. for phytoremediation and phytomining of nickel. South African Journal of Science 97(11-12), 558-560.

Robinson BH, Brooks RR, Clothier BE (1999). Soil Amendments Affecting Nickel and Cobalt Uptake by Berkheya coddii: Potential Use for Phytomining and Phytoremediation. Annals of Botany 84, 689-694.

Leblanc M, Petit D, Deram A, Robinson BH, Brooks RR (1999). The phytomining and environmental significance of hyperaccumulation of thallium by two plant species. Economic Geology 94(1), 109-114.

Robinson BH, Brooks RR, Gregg PEH, Kirkman JH (1999). The nickel phytoextraction potential of some ultramafic soils as determined by sequential extraction. Geoderma 87, 293-304.

Brooks RR, Robinson BH (1998). The potential use of hyperaccumulators and other plants for phytomining. R.R. Brooks ed. Plants that Hyperaccumulate Heavy Metals: their Role in Archaeology, Microbiology, Mineral Exploration, Phytomining and Phytoremediation. CAB International. Wallingford. pp 327-356.

Robinson BH (1997). The phytoextraction of heavy metals from metalliferous soils. PhD thesis. Massey University, New Zealand.

Robinson BH, Green SR, Anderson CWN, Clothier BE (2003) A phytoextraction decision support system and its use in the commercial environment Proceedings of the US EPA International applied phytotechnologies conference. March 3-5 Chicago Il. [PRESENTATION]