Metal eating plants

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Thursday, June 5, 2014


WE ALL know that plants suck in water to grow. But did you know that some plants also take in metals like gold and nickel in large amounts without being poisoned? I could not imagine how particles of these metals will travel from the plant’s roots to the trunk and to the leaves where it will be deposited. One such ‘metal eating’ plant was found recently in the Philippines.

The discovery of the nickel eating plant by scientists from the University of the Philippines, Los Baños was published in the open access journal PhytoKeys. I read the story in the website sciencedaily.com. The plant accumulates up to 18,000 ppm of nickel in its leaves without itself being poisoned. Such an amount is a hundred to a thousand times higher than in most other plants, says the report.

The new species of nickel-eating plant was called Rinorea niccolifera. It was discovered in Zambales, a province where there are mining projects. I think the plant is unknown to the local community because it has no local name. The plant is also classified as Endangered according to IUCN protocols.

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The study cites two possible uses for the plants. One is for phytoremediation, the process of cleaning up metal-contaminated soil. Another is to grow the plant and harvest the nickel later. This process is called Phytomining. I believe both process can be done at the same time. Use the plant to clean the soil and recover the metal later.

By the way, nickel is a metal that is widely used in many products for consumer, industrial, military, transport, aerospace, marine and architectural applications. About 65 percent of the nickel which is produced is used to manufacture stainless steels. Another 20 percent is used in other steel and non-ferrous alloys, often for highly specialized industrial, aerospace and military applications. About 9 percent is used in plating and 6 percent in other uses, including coins, electronics, and in batteries for portable equipment and hybrid cars.

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Here’s another metal-eating plant. Scientists at CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, observed that gold can be found in the leaves of certain eucalyptus trees in very small amounts. Eucalyptus trees are similar to those found along the North Luzon expressway.

The particles of gold found in the leaves of the eucalyptus trees are really tiny. They are only about one-fifth the diameter of human hair, and virtually invisible to the human eye. So if you’re thinking of killing eucalyptus trees to get the gold, forget it.

Dr. Lintern, a research geochemist at the CSIRO, said even 500 trees growing over a gold deposit would only yield enough gold for a wedding ring. The value of those 500 trees is certainly worth a lot more than the tiny gold ring. The significance of this discovery however is that it will make gold exploration quicker and cheaper. The trees can be used as indicators. Gold in the leaves of a eucalyptus tree in an area is a sign of possible gold deposits below.

Well, it’s true that money doesn’t grow on trees. But gold and nickel do. Nyeh-he-he.

Published in the Sun.Star Pampanga newspaper on June 06, 2014.

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