Normally, when we think of mining for precious metals, we imagine dark, cramped caves or holes in the ground which are a bit of an eyesore. However, scientists have found a completely novel way of mining the precious semi-metal germanium (commonly used in computers) and it's not how you'd expect. Instead of going underground, they have found how to mine germanium from lush, green plants.
Reuters reports that scientists from Freiburg University of Mining and Technology can extract the element from certain plants. These include sunflowers, reed canary grass and corn. This mining technique has been used in the past to gather gold and copper. However, suppliers of germanium very rarely get green fingers while on the job, so this approach is extremely unusual.
"In German we call it mining with plants," Professor Hermann Heilmeier, who works on this project, told Reuters. They harvest the plants, which naturally absorb germanium from the soil through their roots. They are then processed and fermented so the scientists can collect biogas first (which efficiently covers most of the costs), then extract the germanium.
There is a demand for germanium since it is an essential element for modern life. A silicon-germanium alloy is widely used in the electrical components of smartphones and computers since it can transport electrical charge very quickly.
Currently, most of our germanium is a by-product from zinc ore (sphalerite) mining or burning coal. Germanium is naturally occurring in the soil, but very difficult to access. However, plants soak it up naturally and harvesting them is a much easier and long-term solution for the environment than digging mines. At the moment, harvesting the germanium from plant matter is a low-yield process, but the researchers are working on increasing their germanium harvest.
And who knows, maybe your smart phone will one day be infused with a little bit of "green" technology.