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University of Queensland (UQ) start-up venture MetalloTek will progress greenhouse and field trials of a new technology that promotes vegetation growth at mine sites contaminated by heavy metals, thanks to financial support from Xstrata Technology.

The technology, developed as an outcome of a multi disciplinary research program at 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 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 (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.

Media enquiries:  Leanne Wyvill +61 7 3365 4037, 0409 767 199 or l.wyvill@uniquest.com.au
Industry enquiries: Dr Laurence Rossato info@metallotek.com