Using Plants to Turn Pollution into Profits

Once again, I may prove why I’m a poor writer, by burying a lede. But bear with me here, because this will come full circle and yield some fruit. You probably know that urban farming has become more popular over the last decade or so as local eating became trendy. As city dwellers started their own plots, people realized there might be a unique challenge to urban areas: avoiding lead poisoning. (Although a more recent study evidently suggests you’re getting less lead than people expected.) We used lead in lots of things throughout the 20th century, and it easily accumulated in the soil in areas exposed to high doses of some sources – so cities and areas by busy highways have lead from old gas emissions, old lots have lead from old paint, and even old lead pipes and batteries can leach lead into soils. There are other pollutants that can leach into soils in other places. Mercury and cadmium can build up in places where significant amounts of coal are burned, and many mining practices can result in a lot of the relevant metal leaking out into the environment.

Traditionally, the way to deal with polluted soil is to literally dig it all up. This has a major drawback, in that completely replacing a soil patch also means you throw out some nice perks of the little micro-ecosystem that was developed, like root systems that help prevent erosion or certain nutrient sources. Recently, a new technique called phytoremediation has caught on, and as the NYT article points out, it takes advantage of the fact that some plants are really good at absorbing these metals from the soil. We now know of so-called hyperaccumulators of a lot of different metals and a few other pollutants. These are nice because they concentrate the metals for us into parts of the plants we can easily dispose of, and they can help preserve aspects of the soil we like. (And roots can help prevent erosion of the soil into runoff to boot.) Of course, one drawback here is time. If you’re concerned that a plot with lead might end up leaching it into groundwater, you may not want to wait for a few harvests to go by to get rid of it.

But a second drawback seems like it could present an opportunity. A thing that bugged me when I first heard of hyperaccumulators was that disposing of them still seemed to pose lots of problems. You can burn the plants, but you would need to extract the metals from the fumes, or it just becomes like coal and gas emissions all over again. (Granted, it is a bit easier when you have it concentrated in one place.) Or you can just throw away the plants, but again, you need to make sure you’re doing it in a place that will safely keep the metals as the plants break down. When I got to meet someone who studies how metals accumulate in plants and animals last summer, I asked her if there was a way to do something productive with those plants that now had concentrated valuable metals. Dr. Pickering told me this is called “phytomining”, and that while people looked into it, economic methods still hadn’t been developed.

That looks like it may have changed last month, when a team from China reported making multiple nanomaterials from two common hyperaccumulators. The team studied Brassica juncea, which turns out to be mustard greens, and Sedum alfredii, which is a native herb, and both of which are known to accumulate copper and zinc. The plants were taken from a copper-zinc mine in Liaoning Province, China.  The plants were first dissolved in a mix of nitric and perchloric acid, but literally just heating the acid residue managed to make carbon nanotubes. Adding some ammonia to the acid residue formed zinc oxide nanoparticles in the Sedum, and zinc oxide with a little bit of copper in the mustard greens. What’s really interesting is that the structure and shape of the nanotubes seemed to correlate to the size of the vascular bundles (a plant equivalent to arteries/veins) in the different plants.

nanotube-from-mustard-greens

A nanotube grown from the mustard greens. Source.

But as Dr. Pickering said to me, people have been looking into to this for a while (indeed, the Chinese team has similar papers on this from 5 years ago). What’s needed for phytomining to take off is for it to be economical. And that’s where the end of the paper comes in. First, the individual materials are valuable. The nanotubes are strong and conductive and could have lots of uses. The zinc oxide particles already have some use in solar cells, and could be used in LEDs or as catalysts to help break down organic pollutants like fertilizers. The authors say they managed to make the nanotubes really cheaply compared to other methods: they claimed they could make a kilogram for $120 while bulk prices from commercial suppliers of similar nanotubes is about $600/kg. (And I can’t even find that, because looking at one of my common suppliers, I see multiwalled nanotubes selling on the order of $100 per gram.) What’s really interesting is they claim they can make a composite between the nanotubes and copper/zinc oxide particles that might be even more effective at breaking down pollutants.

I imagine there will be some unforeseen issue in attempting to scale this up (because it seems like there always is). But this is an incredibly cool result. Common plants can help clean up one kind of pollution and be turned into valuable materials to help clean up a second kind of pollution. That’s a win-win.

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