Image: Phytomining can yield new sources of nickel for the EV battery supply chain while avoiding the environmental impacts of mining (courtesy of ARPA-E).

Nickel-Mining Plants To Juice EV Battery Supply Chain

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The EV battery supply chain is fraught with pitfalls, one of them being the environmental cost of nickel mining. Nevertheless, solutions are emerging, and one of them has just emerged from stealth mode in the form of a new US phytomining startup called Metalplant. Wait, what is phytomining?

US DOE Pursues Phytomining For Sustainable EV Battery Supply Chain

Phytomining refers to the practice of harvesting plants for their metal content. It is not a particularly new idea, but its application to the EV battery supply chain is a new twist.

The US Department of Energy, for one, has spotted an opportunity. Last month the agency’s high-risk, high-reward ARPA-E funding office announced a new $10 million funding pot aimed at developing a homegrown, plant-based EV battery supply chain here in the US, beginning with nickel.

Other metals may be targeted eventually, but if phytomining ever becomes a standard feature in the EV battery supply chain, nickel is the low-hanging fruit.

“Among the critical materials named in the DOE Critical Materials Assessment (CMA), nickel serves as an ideal target to validate the viability of phytomining in the U.S. due to the large number of documented nickel hyperaccumulation (HA) plants,” ARPA-E explains.

ARPA-E lists lithium-ion electric vehicle batteries along with stationary batteries, consumer electronics, metallurgy, and various alloys among the use cases for nickel. “Nickel is crucial to global clean energy technology supply chains and future demand is expected to grow,” they observe.

Bring Out Your Inner Phytominer

The $10 million will go to feasibility studies under a new ARPA-E exploratory topic titled “Plant HYperaccumulators TO MIne Nickel-Enriched Soils,” to produce the awkwardly generated acronym  PHYTOMINES.

Under the PHYTOMINES project, ARPA-E is looking for new technologies that tweak soil conditions or the characteristics of the plants with the aim of enhancing nickel accumulation. “ARPA-E envisions these projects as early-stage proof-of-concepts likely to take place in closed or open-air laboratories, greenhouses, or confined fields where light, humidity, and temperature regimes can be fully programmed,” the agency explains.

Scaling opportunities and technoeconomic and lifecycle analyses are also part of the plan.

ARPA-E got a jump on things last summer, when it held an initial workshop to discuss program with interested parties. A list of potential phytomining “Teaming Partners” is also in the works,  including Georgia Tech and other familiar academic research institutions on the CleanTechnica radar.

Among the private firms to put themselves forward are the California-based firm Otherlab, the Florida consultancy firm WT Partners, and the agtech leader SRI International,

US Startup Busts Out Of Stealth Mode & Into Plant-Based EV Battery Supply Chain

CleanTechnica did not spot the US startup Metalplant on the list, perhaps because the company has been developing its EV battery supply chain solution behind the scenes. However, according to a scoop by the news organization Carbon Herald on April 10, the company is aware of the funding opportunity.

The Carbon Herald story effectively busted Metalplant out of stealth mode with a long, detailed rundown of the company’s research and business plans. We’re reaching out to Metalplant to confirm the highlights, but for now we’ll go with Carbon Herald’s reporting.

The underlying technology and primary goal of Metalplant is enhanced rock weathering, which is familiar to CleanTechnica readers as a form of carbon removal.

Carbon Herald reporter Vasil Velv reports that the company has been developing a site in Northern Albania for demonstrating its vertically integrated operation. The site was selected due to the availability of suitable rocks, which alleviates transportation expenses and energy use.

The geography of Albania is rich in serpentine soils that are ideal for plant-based nickel extraction. The metal content inhibits their suitability for growing food crops, providing an opportunity to grow non-food crops without interfering with food systems.

More specifically, the site consists of serpentine soils pre-weathered by hydrated olivine, a magnesium iron silicate mineral known for rapid weathering. Serpentine soils are made up of fractured rocks that enable water to penetrate, which changes the minerology of the soil over time. They can contain relatively high levels of metals including nickel.

Despite the ability to weather quickly, olivine has not been a preferred target for rock-based carbon capture systems because it releases nickel during the process. Deploying plants to capture the nickel resolves that problem.

As for which plants, hundreds of different species can take up metals, but a relatively limited number are known to be hyperaccumulators with the potential for commercial application. Velv reports that Metalplant is deploying an iteration of a well known hyperaccumulator native to Albania related to Odontarrhena chalcidica, a shrublike plant with copious yellow flowers.

“These plants grow on high-pH, metalliferous soils and absorb over 100 times the amounts of nickel in their roots, stems and foliage, compared to non-hyperaccumulating plants, but without suffering any harmful effects,” Velv reports. Metalplant’s contribution to the field is a souped-up version of Odontarrhena chalcidica that can tolerate more than 1% nickel by dry weight, earning it the title of hypernickelophore.

More Plant-Based Nickel For The EV Battery Supply Chain

Getting the nickel out of the plant is the next step. Velv notes that pyrolysis is one option, but we’ll wait until we hear back from the company before going into detail.

If all this sounds like an awful lot of work, it is. On its own, the nickel recovery operation would be a money-loser. The value of carbon capture supports the operation, with the nickel providing a side benefit while avoiding the environmental impacts of nickel mining.

As reported by Velv, the result is pure nickel sulfate salts, the ideal form of nickel for the EV battery supply chain.

Of course, removing nickel from the EV battery supply chain altogether could help, assuming that alternative formulas do not open up new cans of environmental worms. CleanTechnica has been keeping an eye on new solid-state lithium-iron-phosphate batteries that eliminate cobalt as well as nickel. Lithium-sulfur technology is also in the running.

Some automotive stakeholders have also been eyeing nickel-free flow battery technology. Flow batteries are commonly used for stationary energy storage. Repurposing them for the EV battery market is something of a stretch, though the European firm nanoFlowcell has teased a plan to produce sporty electric vehicles with flow batteries under their hoods. If you have any thoughts about that, drop us a note in the comment thread.

Update: Metalplant co-founder Eric Matzner provided some additional details to CleanTechnica by email. The startup is registered as a Delaware Public Benefit Corporation in the US, and it has established several farms (not just one) in Northern Albania. Matzner also confirmed that the plants are a northern relative of Odontarrhena chalcidica, which may be familiar to some readers under its former classification of Alyssum Murale.

After the plants are harvested, dried, and broken down by pyrolysis, contaminants and other elements are filtered out. “The remaining solution is precipitated to nickel sulfate salts, which can then be used in EV manufacturing, or be melted down nickel metalloids for use in steel making,” Matzner explained.

Matzner also noted that the process yields a type of biochar, which can be spread on the farm as a soil enhancer.

“We can also extract elements from the biomass like potassium which can be spread back on the farm as natural nutrient fertilizers,” he said, though he emphasized that the company does not make claims regarding carbon capture through biomass or biochar. The focus is on carbon capture through enhanced rock weathering. As described by Matzner, weathering stores carbon dioxide as bicarbonate dissolved in water, for a duration lasting more than 10,000 years.

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Image: Phytomining can yield new sources of nickel for the EV battery supply chain while avoiding the environmental impacts of mining (courtesy of ARPA-E).

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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