Do you know how nickel is mined? Nature is devastated in many parts of the planet because of it. One of the nickel mines is also located in Malaysia’s Kinabalu Park. Normal nickel mining is accompanied by clouds of sulfur dioxide and a lot of polluted water. Here, however, nickel is mined completely differently. I get nickel here in a way that is sustainable in the long run and is called “phytomining”.

Nickel mining from plants

The locals let the plants grow several times a year, which they then harvest and burn. Ash is formed which contains 25% by weight of pure nickel. There are over 300,000 recognized plant species worldwide. 700 of them can be described as hypercumulators. One such plant is Phyllanthus rufuschaneyi, which can be found in Kinabalu. These plants extract metals such as nickel, zinc, cobalt or gold from the soil. Nickel has a wide range of uses, for example for the production of stainless steel. Demand for nickel is growing and mining sites are declining. This is why there is so much interest in phytomining.

What is phytomining?

Phytomining is not a trend of the last few years, with the idea coming in 1983 of an agronomist of the US Department of Agriculture named Rufus L. Chaney.

An attractive way for farmers

“We can now demonstrate that metal farms can produce between 150 to 250 kilograms of nickel per hectare (170 to 280 pounds per acre), annually,” said Antony van der Ent, a senior research fellow at Australia’s University of Queensland whose thesis work spurred the Malaysia trial. At the midpoint of that range, a farmer would net a cool $ 3,800 per acre of nickel at today’s prices – which, van der Ent added, is “on par with some of the best-performing agricultural crops on fertile soils, while operating costs are similar. ”

Growing nickel plants may be more attractive to many farmers than growing palm oil, which leads to extensive deforestation.

“At this stage, phytomining can go full-scale for nickel immediately, while phytomining for cobalt, thallium, and selenium is within reach,” van der Ent said.

Phytomining is more environmentally friendly and is also more advantageous for mining companies

In most parts of the planet, nickel is mined from soil that contains more than 1% nickel. Large amounts of soil need to be removed, which is a disaster for the ecosystem. Conventional nickel mining requires heavy machinery as well as acid leaching, which separates the metal from the ore. Nickel-rich soils are becoming increasingly scarce and phytomining may become a major source of nickel. As biological ore contains 20-30% nickel, its transport is much easier and less expensive. For the time being, however, phytomining will become a complementary method of mining rather than a full-fledged alternative.


Mining minerals from the soil is not only demanding, but a layer of toxic metal tailings is formed after it. This layer must be removed and sold to landfills. Rehabilitation of former mines and mining sites is very expensive and often tries to avoid mining companies. However, the soil composition could be ideal for planting hypercumulators. Remediation would be much cheaper and the local ecosystem would be revitalized. Phytoremediation has been tested in France, Greece, Albania, and Italy. The experiment had different results, in some places this process paid off more and in others less.

For example, various types of cotton have been grown in an arsenic-contaminated area. Phytoremediation requires more research and needs to be implemented on a large scale, so that it is not just research but common practice.

“It’s only uptake by industry that is holding up translation of phytomining to large-scale application,” van der Ent said. “Industry invariably asks for a field-scale demonstration of phytomining to prov operational viability, but is not prepared to fund such a pilot project. I firmly believe that once a proven field demonstration at scale exists, this will attract funding. ”

Phytomining is worth paying attention to and more needs to be talked about.