March 5, 2013 at 5:30 PM ET
Common garden plants such as alyssum will be used to soak up toxic metals from polluted lands and then used to produce high-value metal nanoparticles for car parts and medical research, according to an innovative project launched Monday.
The use of plants to clean up polluted sites, a process called phytoremediation, is well known. But until now, the harvested plants were either burned or buried. The new project promises to bring value to the harvested plants by recovering the metals and using engineered bacteria to form metal nanoparticles.
“If we can make high-quality nanoparticles during the bioprocessing steps which follow the harvesting of the plants, we have a unique driver for economic land transformation,” Louise Horsfall, a biologist at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, told NBC News in an email.
The conversion process employs specially-engineered bacteria. The nanoparticles could find a home in catalytic converters for motor vehicles and be used in cancer research, according to the researchers.
The four-year Cleaning Land for Wealth project is funded by a $3.7 million grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council in the United Kingdom. If it works, it could make decontaminating lands a financially valuable proposition, according to Horsfall.
“As the world’s population grows along with the associated demand for food and shelter, we believe that it is worth decontaminating land to unlock vast areas for better food security and housing,” she added in a news release announcing the project.
John Roach is a contributing writer for NBC News. To learn more about him, check out his website.