German scientists devise ‘phytomining’ technique to extract rare metals from plants

germanium mining plants plantscan
Humans have been extracting useful materials from plants for millennia, but in the past few years, we’ve gotten particularly good at it. Case in point? German scientists from Freiburg University of Mining and Technology have discovered a way to mine plants for chemicals that can be used for manufacturing and industrial purposes. Biology professor Hermann Heilmeier and industrial chemistry Professor Martin Bertau are spearheading this technique they call “phytomining.” Working together at Freiburg U, the pair have developed a method to harvest germanium, an important metalloid component used in computers, smartphones and fiber-optic cables.

Germanium is found in soils worldwide, but it is hard to mine since it must be extracted from zinc, silver, lead or copper ore. More than 100 tons of germanium are produced annually with China producing the bulk of the global supply. Approximately 35 percent of worldwide germanium comes from recycling efforts that recoup the metal from existing sources. Heilmeier has found a way to circumvent these time-consuming extraction and recycling procedures using nature’s own concentrator, the plant.

Heilmeier grows his plants in a germanium-rich water that is available in waste rock piles at mines. The plants uptake this germanium-laden water and create a natural reserve of the element using the plant’s normal physiological processes. The plants are then harvested and the germanium recovered from the biomass using bacterial fermentation.

To make the process even more economical, the researchers are piggybacking on top of existing biogas plants that grow plants for energy. By growing these energy plants in germanium-rich water, the team creates an affordable source of germanium that can be mined easily after the plants have been used for energy generation. The bulk of the cost of growing and harvesting the plants is covered by the biogas plants, which already are growing the plants for fuel.  The final step of germanium recovery  is relatively cheap, making germanium phytomining a cost-effective technique.

As it is with most new procedures, there are many hurdles to overcome. For the germanium researchers, they must overcome low yield. Right now, germanium is harvested in minuscule quantities, just a few milligrams of germanium per liter.  The team hopes to upscale this process to an industry level where they are working with apparatus capable of handling a 1,000 liters of plant material at a time and producing yields of at least one gram of germanium per liter.

Home Theater

Dolby’s secret recording studio app may soon exit stealth mode

In secret testing since June, Dolby's stealth recording and social network app may soon be ready to make an appearance. Dolby 234 blends unique noise-canceling tech with Instagram-like audio filters.
Computing

It's not all free money. Here's what to know before you try to mine Bitcoin

Mining Bitcoin today is harder than it used to be, but if you have enough time, money, and cheap electricity, you can still turn a profit. Here's how to get started mining Bitcoin at home and in the cloud.
Home Theater

QLED and OLED may have similar names, but they're totally different technologies

The names may look almost identical, but OLED and QLED are two entirely different beasts. In our QLED vs. OLED battle, we dissect the differences between these dueling TV technologies, and help determine which might be best for you.
Outdoors

Drink what nature provides with the best water purifiers

Looking for reliable water purification? Staying hydrated is important, especially when you are hiking or camping far from civilization. Check out our picks of the best water purifiers for your camp, backpack, or pocket.
Emerging Tech

Want to know which drones are flying near you? There’s an app for that

Want to know what that mysterious drone buzzing over your head is up to? A new system developed by AirMap, Google Wing, and Kittyhawk.io could soon tell you -- via a map on your phone.
Emerging Tech

A Japanese hotel fires half its robot staff for being bad at their jobs

Japan’s oddball Henn na Hotel has fired half of its 243 robot staff. The reason? Because these labor-saving machines turned out to be causing way more problems than they were solving.
Emerging Tech

CERN plans to build a massive particle collider that dwarfs the LHC

CERN already has the world's biggest particle accelerator. Now it wants a bigger one. Meet the 9 billion euro Future Circular Collider that will allow physicists to extend their study of the universe and matter at the smallest level.
Emerging Tech

Forget fireworks. Japan will soon have artificial meteor showers on tap

Tokyo-based startup Astro Live Experiences is preparing to launch its first artificial meteor shower over Japan, serving as a showcase of its prowess in the space entertainment sector.
Cars

Robomart’s self-driving grocery store is like Amazon Go on wheels

Robomart's driverless vehicle is like an Amazon Go store on wheels, with sensors tracking what you grab from the shelves. If you don't want to shop online or visit the grocery store yourself, Robomart will bring the store to you.
Emerging Tech

Glowing space billboards could show ads in the night sky

Look up at the night sky in 2020 and you might see an ad for McDonald's floating among the stars. A Russian startup is working on a project that uses a constellation of small satellites in low-Earth orbit to create glowing ads.
Emerging Tech

New brainwave reader tells teachers if students are concentrating

Massachusetts-based startup BrainCo has developed brainwave-reading headbands which can reportedly help reveal if students are concentrating in class. Here's how they're being used.
Emerging Tech

Fears about kids’ screen use may have been overblown, Oxford researchers find

Many people take it as gospel that digital technologies are harmful to young people’s mental health. But is this true? A recent study from the University of Oxford takes a closer look.
Emerging Tech

Meet Wiliot, a battery-less Bluetooth chip that pulls power from thin air

A tiny chip from a semiconductor company called Wiliot could harvest energy out of thin air, the company claims. No battery needed. The paper-thin device pulls power from ambient radio frequencies like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and cell signals.
Emerging Tech

Hexbot is a modular robot arm that does everything from drawing to playing chess

Who wouldn’t want their own personal robot arm to do everything from laser engraving to competing against you in a game of chess? That's what Hexbot, a new modular robot, promises to deliver.