Scientists develop new techniques to extract resources from wastewater

Inspenet, February 9, 2023

Scientists at the Australian National University (ANU) are taking inspiration from plants to develop new techniques to separate and extract valuable minerals, metals and nutrients from resource-rich wastewater.

ANU researchers are adapting plants’ ‘membrane separation mechanisms’ so they can be integrated into new wastewater recycling technologies. This approach offers a sustainable solution to help manage the resources needed for the world’s food, energy and water security by providing a way to collect, recycle and reuse valuable metal, mineral and nutrient resources from liquid waste.

The technology could benefit a variety of industries such as agriculture, aquaculture, desalination, battery recycling, and mining. It could also help companies rethink their approach to dealing with waste by creating a way to extract value from wastewater. The research also has implications for flood and drought prone areas across Australia.

Global wastewater is estimated to contain three million metric tons of phosphorus, 16.6 million metric tons of nitrogen, and 6.3 million metric tons of potassium. Recovery of these nutrients from wastewater could offset 13.4% of the world’s agricultural demand for these resources.

Molecules of ammonia and hydrogen, among others, that are embedded in wastewater could provide electricity to 158 million homes.

“The world’s wastewater contains a huge amount of resources that are incredibly valuable, but only in their pure form. A major challenge facing researchers is figuring out how to efficiently extract these valuable minerals, metals and nutrients while retaining their purity,” said ANU Scientist Associate Professor Caitlin Byrt.

“The Australian mining industry, for example, generates more than 500 million tons of waste per year, and this waste is rich in resources such as copper, lithium and iron. It’s just waste unless each resource can be separated into a pure form,” Byrt added.

The research was published in New Phytologist, under the title: Molecular Membrane Separation: Plants Inspire New Technologies, by Annamaria De Rosa et al.

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