Week-In-Review: Nickel, the New Cash Crop?

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Welcome back to the MetalMiner Week-In-Review, now reporting live from Australia’s University of Queensland. Okay, not really, we would just like to talk about the research being done there in phytomining. What’s phytomining, you ask?

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Harvesting valuable metals from plants. Growing plants containing nickel, zinc and cobalt—some of our favorite mined minerals—and harvesting them above ground, not below.

Shanghai industrial plants

No, wrong plants!

“We have identified a whole lot of new species which could be used for phytomining which weren’t previously known to science,” Dr. Peter Erskine, one of the researchers working to make the process suitable for conventional mining companies, told Fox News while throwing another shrimp on the barbie. Erskine and his colleague Dr. Antony van der Ent, have discovered about 25 species of plants called ‘hyperaccumulators’ that take up high concentrations of metals from soil, that could form phytomining farms.

“I think nickel is the most promising type of metal for phytomining because it’s worth quite a bit of money—almost $20,000 per ton—and, there are very strong hyperaccumulators known for nickel,” van der Ent said.

Just imagine, instead of Indonesia instituting a raw ore export ban and driving up nickel prices, major steel producers could just plug in a few hydroponics and make their own grow operations for the alloying metal in stainless steel. In fact, why wouldn’t cobalt and zinc producers just set up year-round farms with fields full of hyperaccumulators? Erskine and van den Ent said land previously strip-mined can be used to grow hyperaccumulators and, with some trickery, even gold and rare earths can be grown via these plants. What’s to stop mining companies from step 3, profit, by turning their barren lands into nickel and zinc farms?

This will be what a nickel mine looks like with phytomining. Even the happy wind turbines in the background are welcoming... unless you're a bird.

This will be what a nickel mine looks like with phytomining. Even the happy wind turbines in the background are welcoming… unless you’re a bird.

Maybe that phytomining has been around for decades and it doesn’t really work. University of Sydney Professor Dr. Andrew Harris, who has also studied phytomining, isn’t sure there’s much value in it. He called it “a niche solution to a small part of the mining value chain,” Harris said. “And I think the sum total of all of that means it just hasn’t progressed very much in the last few years.”

So much for Yoders Farms Nickel Beets. We will continue to monitor phytomining to see if the Australian researchers or others make a breakthrough, until then we’re stuck with this backyard zinc smelter.

Still on Dump Watch

The US International Trade Commission slapped Turkey on the wrist for dumping steel rebar here this week. They reaffirmed the duties they’d earlier announced on Mexico, too. What changed their mind about Turkey? Motivation for Thanksgiving? An overall loss of appreciation for minarets? Nope, we won’t know until the ITC’s full report comes out in November.

Rare Earths Deathmatch

In our Monthly Rare Earths MMI®, October now available, we held a rare earths debate deathmatch between bullish and bearish analysts Jack Lifton and Dudley Kingsnorth. We’re still repairing the damage to the office gymnasium. The yttria question, alone, knocked down a few walls. Good thing they weren’t load-bearing.

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