Dr. Neilson and Dr. Babst-Kostecka Aim to Identify Metal-Hyperaccumulating Plants as Ecocatalysts

Feb. 15, 2023

Dr. Alicja Babst-Kostecka and Dr. Julia Neilson from Project 5 were recently awarded a Mineral Resources Research and Innovation Initiatives (Mineral Resources RII) Grant to identify metal-hyperaccumulating plants as polymetallic systems – systems that collect and contain several metals – for ecocatalysis, which is a way of enhancing ecological rehabilitation of polluted sites. 

Unique to the idea of ecocatalysis is the concept that toxic waste sites from around the world are reservoirs for novel polymetallic catalysts. The metals are delivered via phytoextraction – the use of plants to remove contaminants – from plants with hyperaccumulating efficiency and specificity for each site. This project’s proposed strategy is to use metal hyperaccumulating plant species that can naturally collect high-value metals and metalloids as ecocatalysts.

The funded project, “Repurposing Mine Waste,” represents a collaboration between the Center for Environmentally Sustainable Mining (CESM) and BHP Copper. The BHP Legacy Asset Team is committed to a circular economy for mining and is specifically interested in innovative opportunities for the repurposing of mine waste.  

The BHP Copper Solitude Legacy mine tailings site has supported vegetation on metal contaminated tailings since 1950. This site provides an invaluable opportunity to screen a broad diversity of native plants to identify potential hyperaccumulators for different metals because these plants have adapted to this metal contaminated environment for over 50 years.

The SMMR Mineral Resources RII funding will facilitate the metal analysis of plant material from a broad diversity of Solitude plants that are adapted to elevated metal concentrations in tailings. Such a diversity of metal-adapted native plant species is not readily available at other sites throughout the southwestern U.S. Plants identified from this project will form the basis of a potential future collaboration with BHP and other mining companies to reseed legacy tailings for metal harvesting.

Importantly, this project’s findings will contribute to the ongoing  international collaboration between UA and CNRS: "One Person's Trash is Another Person’s Treasure – Optimizing Metal-contaminated Plant Biomass Towards the Needs of Green Chemistry”. 

More information on this project can be found in a highlight on the CESM website:  https://cesm.arizona.edu/academic-collaboration/current-exploratory-research-projects