The technology, developed as an outcome of a multi disciplinary research program at The University of Queensland (UQ), has the potential to be a low cost and effective tool for helping to rehabilitate metal-contaminated mine sites. UniQuest, UQ’s main commercialisation company, established MetalloTek to manage further development and commercialisation of the technology in partnership with industry stakeholders.
MetalloTek’s lead researcher, Dr Laurence Rossato from the Centre for Mined Land Rehabilitation (CMLR) within UQ’s Sustainable Minerals Institute (SMI), said the technology was developed in response to a major challenge for rehabilitating contaminated land where mine wastes would not support plant growth.
“Rehabilitation is a vital part of environmental sustainability associated with mining. Our innovative approach has the potential to promote sustainable plant growth on soils contaminated with soluble toxic metals,” said Dr Rossato.
“We add metal-binding polymer particles to the contaminated soil where they bind to toxic metal ions, reducing their concentrations and thereby allowing vegetation growth. MetalloTek’s particles also act as a temporary water reservoir and deliver water to plants, which is particularly useful in arid environments. With increased vegetation cover, soil erosion, metal contamination and leakage into the surrounding environment are mitigated.”
In 2010, a preliminary glass house trial demonstrated the effectiveness of the MetalloTek technology on waste rock from a heavily contaminated mine site. The Queensland Department of Employment, Economic Development and Innovation (DEEDI) supplied contaminated mine site soil for the glasshouse trial.
Results included plant germination, healthy shoot growth and root development on the mine waste on which no vegetation had been grown for the 30 years (see image).
Xstrata Technology CEO, Joe Pease, said the research showed the potential to deliver smart and sustainable ways of dealing with metal contamination in soils – a critical concern for mining companies committed to sustainable rehabilitation.
“Typically, rehabilitation processes involve capping mine waste with scarce topsoil, or trying to establish vegetation on waste which may contain soluble metals which hinder plant regeneration or may leach into the groundwater,” said Mr Pease.
“While the MetalloTek technology is still in its infancy, it is hoped that the metal binding attributes will ‘tie up’ the soluble metals and allow plants to become established on rehabilitation sites, eventually forming stable ecosystems.”
UniQuest Managing Director, David Henderson, said the financial support from Xstrata Technology reflected confidence in the capacity of university research to help major economic sectors like mining address sustainability issues.
“The University of Queensland boasts some of Australia’s leading environmental experts working in multi-disciplinary teams to resolve problems that industries all over the world are facing. Through start-up ventures like MetalloTek, and with commercial support, we can accelerate the transfer and sharing of ideas,” Mr Henderson said.
The financial input from Xstrata Technology will help fund MetalloTek’s plans for a long-term glasshouse pot trial and further testing to ready the technology for a pilot field trial at a mine site.
UniQuest Pty Limited
Established by The University of Queensland in 1984, UniQuest is widely recognised as one of Australia’s largest and most successful university commercialisation groups, benchmarking in the top tier of technology transfer worldwide. From an intellectual property portfolio of 1,500+ patents it has created over 60 companies, and since 2000 UniQuest and its start-ups have raised more than $400 million to take university technologies to market. Annual sales of products using UQ technology and licensed by UniQuest are running at $3 billion. UniQuest now commercialises innovations developed at The University of Queensland and its commercialisation partner institutions: the University of Wollongong, University of Technology Sydney, James Cook University, University of Tasmania, Mater Medical Research Institute, and Queensland Health. UniQuest also provides access to an expansive and exclusive network of independent academics to tailor a consulting or project R&D solution to meet the diverse needs of industry and government, facilitating some 500 consulting, expert opinion, testing, and contract research services each year.
UniQuest is also a leading Australasian provider of international development assistance recognised for excellence in technical leadership, management and research. Working with agencies such as AusAID, NZAID, the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank, UniQuest has developed and implemented more than 400 projects in 46 countries throughout the Pacific, South-East Asia, the Indian sub-continent and Africa.
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Centre for Mined Land Rehabilitation
A member of the Sustainable Minerals Institute (SMI, previously the Sir James Foots Institute of Mineral Resources), the Centre for Mined Land Rehabilitation (CLMR) was established at The University of Queensland in 1993 and has built on more than 20 years involvement with the mining and minerals industries. The CMLR is the sole provider of environmental mining management within the University and has established for itself and SMI a reputation of national and international significance. CMLR is involved in a broad range of research and training projects with mining companies, industry bodies and government departments from across Australia and the world.