Native Australian plants could be used to extract rare earth minerals with less environmental impact than mining practices, according to a study by the University of Queensland’s Sustainable Minerals Institute.
As part of the study, native plants such as selenium weed and a variety of macadamia tree will be researched for their abilities as “hyperaccumulators”, which, through the process of “phytomining”, will be trialled to extract rare earth metals from the ground.
If the study proves successful, it has the potential to change the way mines operate in the future, with the extraction of plants providing less of a reliance on disrupting the ground.
Queensland Resources Minister Scott Stewart said the study is the next step in the state’s continued evolution towards more sustainable commercial practices.
“The popularity of renewable technology and electric vehicles continues to grow … We already know Queensland has rich deposits of minerals like cobalt, copper and vanadium,” Stewart said.
“We want to look at new ways we can use those minerals to create even more jobs as we continue to deliver our COVID-19 Economic Recovery Plan.”
One type of hyperaccumulators planted across a nickel-rich site could yield 300 kilograms of nickel per hectare every year, researchers have found, in which case the metal could be harvested instead of mined.
The next step will be for researchers to understand if certain native plants discovered at rare earth element-rich sites in Queensland can extract metals from the soil at high volumes.
If successful, the study could be looked upon favourably overseas, with international organisations increasingly valuing sustainability when sourcing materials.
“Consumers in Europe or the United States want to know that the materials used to make the battery that powers their electric cars were sourced ethically, in both a social and environmental sense,” Stewart said.
“That’s why we continue to engage with European markets and showcase the potential of Queensland’s minerals industry.”