“Mineral Farms” May Yield Tasty Mining Harvest

“Mineral Farms” May Yield Tasty Mining Harvest

We all know that “money doesn’t grow on trees.” But what happens if it actually does… just not in the form we expect?
A team of scientists from the University of Melbourne are pushing the boundaries of that metaphor with a study of hyperaccumulators — plants that love minerals and thrive in particular contaminated soils; they draw those minerals up into their bodies and keep them until the sap can be harvested and “smelted” into metal. The process is called “phytomining”: Imagine crossing a mine with a sugar maple stand, making for a far more sustainable and less destructive way of extracting metals from the earth!
The New York Times has done a deep dive into the possible applications of these hyperaccumulators, of which there are over 700 known among this planet’s plant life. Dr. Alan Baker, botany professor, and his international team have rented a plot of land on the island of Borneo. There, they’ve collaborated with farmers to process the sap of the plants grown there into nickel citrate, a valuable mineral that can be used to manufacture batteries and stainless steel. This proof of concept has laid the foundation for a bigger, 50-acre trial, which the team hopes will grab the attention of the very industries they want to disrupt.
“Currently, the most common way to extract nickel for electronics requires intense energy — often derived from coal and diesel — and creates heaps of acidic waste. A typical smelter costs hundreds of millions of dollars and requires increasingly scarce ore that is at least 1.2 percent rich with nickel.
In contrast, plants on a small nickel farm could be harvested every six months on land where the nickel concentration is only 0.1 percent. After two decades, the roots would struggle to find enough nickel, but the land would have been sucked dry of its toxic metals, and fertile enough to support more common crops.’
The minerals are extracted from the plant matter itself by burning or compression, both processes easily scaled up or down. While phytomining can’t totally replace traditional mining, it can be used in places where traditional mining is untenable. Additionally, the plants used can draw minerals from soils polluted by traditional mining, stockpiling that much more material for the mining companies — thus incentivizing a cleanup that leaves the earth reinvigorated for other crops! And nickel is not the only “fruit” these plants can bear: different species slurp up other useful metals like cobalt and zinc.
I’m entranced by visions of “metal farms,” where (metaphorical) bushels of key minerals are brought in after a growing season that respects local climate and terrain. It seems so bucolic! And necessary: If we can’t wean ourselves off these industries entirely, it’s on us to find sustainable ways to get results. I’m looking forward to seeing the results of the bigger trial and watching companies get on board “harvesting” crops of pure minerals.

Up, Up and Away In My Beautiful Bento

Either folks miss air travel more than I thought, or Japanese regional airlines have way better in-flight meals than I’ve ever encountered! Nagoya Air Catering Co. has entered the market for cute lunches through an inspired pivot: repurposing in-flight meals as bentos (the modular boxed meal that hails from Japan). 
This is no simple reallocation of food resources, as we saw on a smaller scale early in the pandemic with home cooks turning extra milk into so cheese. Nagoya Air Catering is straight-up serving its most popular in-flight meals to hungry supermarket shoppers, and commuters at a pop-up kiosk near the massive Nagoya station. From The Japan Times:
“The daily number of in-flight meals made and shipped by Nagoya Air Catering Co. at Chubu Centrair International Airport in Tokoname, Aichi Prefecture, fell from 6,000 to around 100 as passenger demand dropped sharply. The plummeting sales numbers forced the company to make efforts to find a new market. […]

On sale are three kinds of bento featuring Japanese, Asian and European cuisine, as well as a Kobe beef bento and beef fillet sandwiches originally intended for business-class passengers. […]
Nagoya Air Catering is considering making the in-flight meals available at convenience stores as well. It is also planning to launch a baguette meal that was originally for cabin crew members.”
I’ve looked into a bit of the science behind in-flight meals — namely, how catering services bump up the salt and sugar content to compensate for the dry air and white noise of a plane cabin affecting the way we taste. I wonder if Nagoya Air Catering has dialled down these flavours in their earth-bound bentos — or maybe the blast of seasoning is all part of the charm? While I wouldn’t cross the street for one of Air Canada’s offerings, I’m intrigued by the popularity of these lunches… I’ll put them on my list to sample when — if — I’ll be able to visit Japan!