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Current status and challenges in developing nickel phytomining: an agronomic perspective

Abstract

Background

Nickel (Ni) phytomining operations cultivate hyperaccumulator plants (‘metal crops’) on Ni-rich (ultramafic) soils, followed by harvesting and incineration of the biomass to produce a high-grade ‘bio-ore’ from which Ni metal or pure Ni salts are recovered.

Scope

This review examines the current status, progress and challenges in the development of Ni phytomining agronomy since the first field trial over two decades ago. To date, the agronomy of less than 10 species has been tested, while most research focussed on Alyssum murale and A. corsicum. Nickel phytomining trials have so far been undertaken in Albania, Canada, France, Italy, New Zealand, Spain and USA using ultramafic or Ni-contaminated soils with 0.05–1 % total Ni.

Conclusions

N, P and K fertilisation significantly increases the biomass of Ni hyperaccumulator plants, and causes negligible dilution in shoot Ni concentration. Organic matter additions have pronounced positive effects on the biomass of Ni hyperaccumulator plants, but may reduce shoot Ni concentration. Soil pH adjustments, S additions, N fertilisation, and bacterial inoculation generally increase Ni phytoavailability, and consequently, Ni yield in ‘metal crops’. Calcium soil amendments are necessary because substantial amounts of Ca are removed through the harvesting of ‘bio-ore’. Organic amendments generally improve the physical properties of ultramafic soil, and soil moisture has a pronounced positive effect on Ni yield. Repeated ‘metal crop’ harvesting depletes soil phytoavailable Ni, but also promotes transfer of non-labile soil Ni to phytoavailable forms. Traditional chemical soil extractants used to estimate phytoavailability of trace elements are of limited use to predict Ni phytoavailability to ‘metal crop’ species and hence Ni uptake.

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Acknowledgments

The authors acknowledge the French National Research Agency through the national “Investissements d’avenir” program (ANR-10-LABX-21 - LABEX RESSOURCES21) for funding Dr. van der Ent's postdoctoral position and for supporting Mr. Nkrumah's PhD research. Mr. Nkrumah is the recipient of an International Postgraduate Research Scholarship (IPRS) and a UQ Centennial Scholarship at The University of Queensland, Australia. The Nickel Producers Environmental Research Association (NiPERA) supported Dr. Chaney’s work on this evaluation, and findings of research undertaken in cooperation with J.S. Angle, Y.-M Li, R.D. Reeves, R.J. Roseberg, E. Brewer and U. Kukier included herein. We would like to thank the editor and two anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments on an earlier version of this manuscript.

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Correspondence to Philip Nti Nkrumah.

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Responsible Editor: Fangjie Zhao.

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Nkrumah, P.N., Baker, A.J.M., Chaney, R.L. et al. Current status and challenges in developing nickel phytomining: an agronomic perspective. Plant Soil 406, 55–69 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11104-016-2859-4

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Keywords

  • Agronomy
  • Annual Ni yield
  • Biomass production
  • Economic Ni phytomining
  • Ni hyperaccumulator plants
  • Ultramafic soils