​New nickel accumulating plants uncovered

Researchers have uncovered dozens of new nickel hyperaccumulator plants in a study in Borneo.

Anthony van der Ent, working with the Centre for Mined Land Rehabilitation (CMLR) with the University of Queensland’s Sustainable Minerals Institute has discovered the new plants species in Borneo’s Mount Kinabalu world heritage site.

The researchers found local trees contain some of the world’s highest concentrations of nickel in plants.

Mid last year scientists also uncovered a similar plant in the Philippines, Rinorea Niccolifera, which can accumulate up to 18 000ppm of nickel without being affected.

"Hyperacccumulator plants have great potentials for the development of green technologies, for example, 'phytoremediation' and 'phytomining'," Dr. Augustine Doronila, from University of Melbourne Schoo

“From magnets to mobile phones and car motors, the world’s population uses a huge amount of nickel and the availability of mineable deposits, and the costs and complexity of recovery, are potentially limiting future supplies van der Ent said.

"Hyperacccumulator plants have great potentials for the development of green technologies, for example, 'phytoremediation' and 'phytomining'," Dr. Augustine Doronila, from the University of Melbourne said.

The trees uncovered in Boreneo contain up to three per cent nickel “so there is the real potential to develop large nickel ‘farms’ in the Tropics, which would be of benefit to the environment and local communities who have previously dealt with the impacts of mining.”

CMLR Director Professor David Mulligan added: “By studying intact landscapes such as Kinabalu Park, researchers are gaining insights into plant development and growth and an understanding of the relationships between the biotic and abiotic environments – knowledge that is enormously useful for informing strategies relating to mine site rehabilitation.”

The use of hyperaccumlators has a long and storied history in mining.

Previously plants known thrive in soils with heavy metals were used to uncover metal deposits.

The technique has been recorded as being used in China since the 5th century BC, and in fact Sweden's former Viscaria copper mine was actually named after the Viscaria aplina flower which prospectors used to discover the deposit, as the flower is known to grow in soils with heavy copper concentrations.

Australian natives such as Stackhouse tyronii and ­Hybanthus floribundus can also be used as lead and nickel indicators due to their hyperaccumulator ability, according to The Lead Group and to research carried out by CQ University professor Nanjappa Ashwatha and Dr. Poonam Bhatia.

In fact "Stackhousia try­onii is a serpentine-endemic, rare, native Australian plant and is reported to hyperaccumulate nickel up to 55,500 mg g-1 on a dry weight basis," the group explained.

In 2013 it was also reported that native eucalypts were thriving around the highly acidic decommissioned Mt Morgan gold mine, near Rockhampton, and highlighted the potential for the plants to be used in mine site remediation.

"Seedlings were growing in highly acidic soil where the pH shouldn't support them, and they are thriving," local councillor Neil Fisher said.

"On the very edge of the water, 300-400 eucalypt seedlings are growing where plants normally would have died."