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Novel Ceramic/Metallic Materials July 2020 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Rob Edmonds

Agromining

Why is this topic significant?

Hyperaccumulator plants that extract metals and minerals from soil may eventually be able to supplement traditional mining operations.

Description

The developing field of agromining, or phytomining, seeks to produce base metals and rare minerals via plants that collect metals. The main focus of research into these hyperaccumulating plants—such as that by Antony van der Ent of the University of Queensland in Australia and that by Alan Baker, a visiting professor at the University of Melbourne in Australia—is improving contaminated land. However, small-scale studies have shown that farmers can also extract metals and minerals, including nickel citrate, from hyperaccumulator plants via squeezing or burning. "Down on the Farm That Harvests Metal From Plants," a 26 February 2020 New York Times article, reported that Dr. Baker and an international team are scaling up an existing Borneo-based study to 50 acres and that the team hopes that a "sizeable portion" of consumer demand for base metals and minerals could be filled by agromining in a decade.

Nickel hyperaccumulators appear to be one of the most promising agromining plants, and Phyllanthus rufuschaneyi is among the species of interest. Phyllanthus rufuschaneyi is a rare plant in the wild, restricted to a region near Kinabalu Park in Sabah, Malaysia. Another example is the palmlike plant Pandanus candelabrum, which grows on kimberlite-derived soils and potentially helps people find kimberlite pipes that may contain diamonds. Other efforts include using hyperaccumulator plants to find gold, copper, and cobalt.

Implications

Researchers are keen to point out that agromining will not be able to replace traditional mining but could act as a useful supplement to traditional methods. The approach is likely to be most useful for extracting additional value from mines after traditional extraction methods have finished, at the same time aiding in land rehabilitation. Dr. Van der Ent says that "agromining's niche would be low-grade surface deposits found in ultramafic soils and as part of the rehabilitation strategy after strip mining has taken place." Dr. Baker, with his claim that a "sizeable portion" of demand for metals and minerals could be met by agromining, appears more optimistic about agromining's prospects but is also clear that the approach can never fully replace traditional mining.

Impacts/Disruptions

Although agromining is interesting and has potential, outcomes are uncertain. Large-scale studies that demonstrate the real business cases have yet to emerge, and mining companies will likely be reluctant to adopt wholly new approaches to extraction. However, approaches that combine land rehabilitation with even limited new value generation may well be of interest to the industry—particularly as environmental pressures on the mining industry mount up and as demand, especially for rare metals and minerals, increases.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 10 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Mining, biotechnology, agriculture, materials

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Area to Monitor: Raw Materials

Why is this topic significant?

The supply of raw materials is critical for the success of novel ceramic and metallic materials. Changing global dynamics, including those resulting from the covid-19 pandemic, affect outcomes.

Why Raw Materials are Important to Monitor

Advanced materials continue to represent an area of increasing strategic importance and investment worldwide. Demand for specialty products that use advanced materials and therefore raw materials is likely to rise with growing populations, rising consumption, improving living standards, and increasing industrialization. Many raw materials derive from natural resources that are finite or are in deposits that are too costly or complex to extract. The processing of many natural resources is energy intensive, and rising energy prices can have cost implications for both upstream and downstream processing companies. Globalization is already shifting the manufacture of products that use novel ceramic and metallic materials (NCMMs) to emerging economies, and universities and research establishments in these emerging economies now have considerable R&D under way—some of which focuses specifically on NCMMs. The growth of three key economies—China, India, and Russia—is particularly important to ensure the supply of raw materials for the production of NCMMs.

Another factor is that NCMM-product recycling, which requires technologies capable of separating products into components and ultimately into their constituent materials, can be highly difficult—especially for complex goods such as electronic devices and automobiles. Current legislation—particularly in the automotive and electronics industries—assigns responsibility for the recycling of products at the end of their lives.

What to Watch For

  • Watch for developments in the supply of key metals for the production of metal-matrix composites (MMCs). Bottlenecks in the supply of many natural resources—and thus raw materials—are appearing and have the potential to drive up the cost or reduce the availability of advanced materials that find application in many industries, such as electronics and aerospace. Securing reliable and cost-effective access to raw materials—especially metals—could become increasingly difficult in the next ten years, and the balance could tip in favor of materials that compete with MMCs if procuring key metals becomes too expensive for players.
  • The discovery of new natural-resource deposits and novel extraction methods can contribute to stable or lower raw-materials costs. Novel methods of extracting raw materials could be potentially disruptive.
  • Recent data suggest that the economics of metals and other resources are now reaching the point at which waste could become a practical source of raw materials. Recycling will become increasingly important and is an important area to monitor.
  • China and Russia could dominate the supply of raw materials, although India will likely become an equally important player. The countries' respective recoveries from the covid-19 (coronavirus-disease-2019) pandemic will influence outcomes. NCMMs players must consider how future developments in these countries could affect their businesses.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years to 10 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Raw materials, materials processing, advanced materials, manufacturing, logistics

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: