Using Plants to Decarbonize the Mining Industry

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About This Project

Phytomining uses hyperaccumulator plants to absorb minerals from low-grade ore, providing access to untapped domestic metal resources. This process involves cultivating plants in metal-rich soil, extracting metals from the plant biomass, and refining them to sell back to mining companies. As the world transitions toward a sustainable future, phytomining is an energy-efficient technology with the dual benefit of metal uptake and ecosystem restoration.

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What is the context of this research?

In the next decade, the demand for minerals necessary to support the clean energy transition is expected to increase six-fold. This heightened demand will result in higher CO2 emissions due to intensified mining, further compounding the negative impacts of mining on local ecosystems. Managing low-grade ore from extraction to processing is becoming more costly and less profitable, and there have been limited solutions to address this issue. Many mining firms are choosing to exclude low-grade ore from their operations prior due to the increasing operational expenses and greater environmental impact. Plants could offer an effective solution to extract low-abundant metals from soils or to clean up mine waste. This method is called Phytomining.

What is the significance of this project?

Plants capable of absorbing high amounts of metals into their tissue are known as hyperaccumulators. These species have evolved to thrive in harsh conditions by employing different adaptive mechanisms than typical plants. Hyperaccumulators naturally grow in low-grade ore soils and can accumulate 1-2% metals in their above-ground biomass. However, these natural metal-accumulating processes are relatively slow and are not efficient enough for practical mining applications. Phytomining has the potential to reduce mining's carbon footprint by five tons for every ton of ore extracted. If successful, phytomining will significantly reduce environmental impact while recovering metals from previously untapped metal sources.

What are the goals of the project?

The objective of this project is to identify the most effective biological treatment for enhancing metal accumulation in plants. As part of this endeavor, I will establish a high-throughput screening platform, enabling the assessment of various plant species' responses to diverse biological treatments, and test different metals for uptake efficiency. The study involves a screening procedure with the outcome measured through metal uptake analysis in leaf samples. Identifying the optimal peptide for enhancing metal accumulation represents a significant advancement toward the realization of phytomining as a method for both mining and bioremediation.


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The budget will enable us to acquire seeds, establish controlled plant growing conditions, and utilize advanced plant phenotyping systems to maintain consistent plant development within a temperature-controlled greenhouse. This support will also facilitate evaluating the impact of introduced adsorbents and peptides on plant growth, the measurement of metal uptake, and the assessment of metal extraction efficiency, all of which are crucial for achieving our research goals.

Project Timeline

The milestones will consist of three phases: Experiment setup, Experiment execution, and Experiment analysis.

Dec 04, 2023


Jan 15, 2024

Experiment execution

Feb 05, 2024


Meet the Team

Ying Sun
Ying Sun
Postdoctoral scholar

Team Bio

We have a strong team of individuals committed to making phytomining a reality. Sooho Oh is an MBA student who will develop a business plan, conduct market analysis, and spearhead customer discovery. Austin Sorensen has a talent for plant cultivation and will provide a steady supply of plants for testing. Matthew Callahan specializes in optical imaging and spectroscopy. His focus is on quantifying plant tissue to determine the extent of metal accumulation.

Ying Sun

My journey has been shaped by a lifelong passion for harnessing plants for positive impact. I have been fascinated by the idea that understanding and eventually altering the molecular mechanisms of plants will allow us to exert control over the essential resources plants provide. During my PhD, I found that some plants possess the potential to thrive in the world’s most extreme environments. My thesis highlighted that by shifting our focus towards non-model plant species, we can unlock and leverage developmental processes that are not typically observed in traditionally studied plants. I’m motivated to make a meaningful impact and help address urgent challenges in Climate and Energy. The next steps in my journey will involve applying my 15 years of plant science experience toward advancing sustainable manufacturing and renewable materials using plants!

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