Green thumbs up for mine rehab technology

14 Mar 2011

A new technology that promotes plant growth at mine sites previously unable to support any vegetation due to heavy metal soil contamination is being trialled by researchers at The University of Queensland (UQ) with financial support from Xstrata Technology.

The break-through technology, which has the potential to re-vegetate barren mine sites, was developed through a multi disciplinary research program at UQ and will be tested in greenhouse and field trials this year.

UniQuest, UQ’s main commercialisation company established start-up venture company, MetalloTek Pty Ltd, 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 within UQ’s Sustainable Minerals Institute, said the technology had the potential to be a low cost and effective tool for helping to rehabilitate metal-contaminated mine sites.

“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,” Dr Rossato said.

“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 greenhouse 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 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.

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,” Mr Pease said.

“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.

Media enquiries: Leanne Wyvill +61 7 3365 4037, 0409 767 199 or 
Industry enquiries: Dr Laurence Rossato

About UniQuest 
Established by The University of Queensland in 1984, UniQuest is widely recognised as one of Australia’s largest and most successful university commercialisation groups. With more than 80 staff and group revenues exceeding $320 million in the past five years, the company is also benchmarked 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. Sales of products using UQ technology and licensed by UniQuest have passed $5.2 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, and the Mater Medical Research Institute. 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.For more information about UniQuest, please visit