Scientists at the Australian National University (ANU) are drawing inspiration from plants to develop new techniques to separate and extract valuable minerals, metals and nutrients from resource-rich wastewater.
Australian National University researchers are tweaking plants’ “membrane separation mechanisms” so they can be embedded in new wastewater recycling technologies. This approach offers a sustainable solution to help manage the resources needed for the world’s food, energy and water security by providing a means to harvest, recycle and reuse valuable metals, minerals and nutrient resources from liquid waste .
The technology could benefit a range of industries including agriculture, aquaculture, desalination, battery recycling and mining. It could also help companies rethink the way they deal with waste by creating a way to extract value from wastewater. The research also has implications for flood- and drought-prone regions of Australia.
Global wastewater is estimated to contain 3 million tons of phosphorus, 16.6 million tons of nitrogen and 6.3 million tons of potassium. Recovering these nutrients from wastewater could offset 13.4% of global agriculture’s demand for these resources.
Ammonia and hydrogen molecules contained in wastewater can provide electricity to 158 million households.
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“The world’s wastewater contains a mess of resources that are extremely valuable, but only in pure form. A big challenge for researchers is figuring out how to efficiently extract these valuable minerals, metals and nutrients, while maintaining their purity,” said ANU plant scientist Associate Professor Caitlin Bailt.
“For example, Australia’s mining industry produces more than 500 million tonnes of waste a year, rich in resources such as copper, lithium and iron. But currently liquid waste is only a problem; it cannot be discarded and it cannot be used. Unless every resource can Isolated in pure form, otherwise it is just waste.
“This is especially true in the field of battery recycling; spent batteries contain a large and abundant lithium resource, but we are not yet able to extract or reuse it efficiently. Harvesting resources from industrial and municipal waste is an important part of transitioning to a circular green economy, building a sustainable future and A key step in reducing our carbon footprint.”
Researchers have studied the special molecular mechanisms that help plants recognize and separate different metals, minerals and nutrient molecules in soil, allowing them to distinguish the good from the bad — a fundamental requirement for their growth and development. biological process.
“Resources such as boron, iron, lithium and phosphorus are used in battery technology, and factories are masters at isolating these types of resources,” Associate Professor Byrt said.
Ammonia, a compound used to make fertilizer and an essential material in crop production, is another key resource scientists are looking to extract from liquid waste solutions.
“Fertilizer costs are skyrocketing, and there’s a lot of pressure on Australian farmers to afford these higher prices, but we’re wasting a lot of these molecules, which is causing environmental problems,” Associate Professor Bairt said .
“Ammonia is also a key storage molecule for hydrogen fuel. So as we continue to develop the hydrogen fuel industry, the demand for ammonia to be used as a storage molecule will increase because that’s how the hydrogen fuel industry is able to transport stored hydrogen and eventually use it. way of potential energy. A source of fuel to fuel cars and other technologies.”
Associate Professor Byrt said advances in precise separation technology could also provide safety assurance for flood and drought-prone communities in Australia, providing them with portable, safe and reliable access to clean drinking water as weather events exacerbated by climate change.
“Clean water and the security of nutrient resources are fundamental to agricultural productivity. Developing technologies to sustainably manage these resources is critical to food security in Australia and globally,” she said.
refer to: De Rosa A, McGaughey S, Magrath I, Byrt C. Molecular membrane separation: new technologies inspired by plants. new botanist.2023.doi: 10.1111/nph.18762
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