We have researched a novel approach to integrate phytoremediation (the treatment of environmental problems through the use of plants) with biomass energy production, synthetic biology and biorefinery. This is to provide a sound economic solution for land remediation and resource efficiency.
- Known as Cleaning Land for Wealth (CL4W), the project addresses the challenge of treating contaminated land to recover materials for future use and economic gain. It focuses on increasing the value of phytoremediation processes (treating environmental problems through the use of plants) as a land remediation technology.
- The three-year project, ending in August 2016, is a collaboration with the universities of Warwick, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Newcastle University.
- The £2.5 million project has included international collaboration with China and Brazil, as well as a survey of land in England and Wales, a public engagement event in London and produced follow-on research proposals.
- Funded by Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).
Impact of our research
The Cleaning Land for Wealth (CL4W) project has been seeking to increase the value of phytoremediation processes (treating environmental problems through the use of plants) as a land remediation technology. It is developing an engineered bioprocess to produce high-valued co-products, such as metal(loid) elements in their nanoparticle forms, organic compounds derived from lignocellulose biomass degradation and renewable energy from plant biomass, so improving the economic viability of such a clean-up project.
We conducted a national survey on the state of contaminated land in England and Wales in collaboration with Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) and the Environment Agency, as well as improving public awareness of contaminated land and resource efficiency through a public engagement event at the V&A Museum in London.
Why the research was commissioned
There is a need to address the challenge of treating contaminated land to recover materials for future use and economic gain. All existing work on land remediation (stopping or reversing environmental damage) is energy and / or resource intensive, focusing on removing contaminants with no attempt to recover them as a resource.
Currently, there are few genuine economic drivers to motivate decontamination and land recovery even though many sites contain substantial amounts of valuable minerals. The resource costs for land treatment are prohibitive for dispersed sites.
Recent estimates suggest that there are approximately 300,000 hectares of land in the UK affected to some extent by industrial or natural contamination. And in Western Europe, some 350,000 contaminated sites with an estimated treatment cost of €350 billion have been identified. Globally, substantial land contamination exists (although this is poorly quantified).
During the Cleaning Land for Wealth project, we identified the UK land-banks of waste material that have the composition / volume for potential material recovery. We have also developed a decision-making modelling tool for plant selection for phytoremediation projects, while modelled results allow an in-depth understanding of the fate of metal contaminants in biomass during thermochemical processes.