Combining pollution cleanup, green energy, and recycling, a new project in the U.K. investigates the potential of using algae to clean up an old mine site, while producing both biofuels and metals for electronics at the same time. The Guardian reports that a pilot project to clean up the flooded Wheal Jane tin mine in Cornwall is being undertaken by a group of British universities, along with several other organizations operating under the title of the GW4 Alliance. Together, they’re taking untreated, heavy metal-laden mine water samples and using them to grow algae in a lab with the goal of discovering whether it’s possible to rid the water of harmful materials like arsenic and cadmium.
In an ingenious duet of spinoffs, the researchers hope that the heavy metals extracted during this process can be recycled for use in the electronics industry, while the solid waste left over can be turned into biofuels. “It’s a win-win solution to a significant environmental problem,” Dr. Chris Chuck of the University of Bath’s Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies told The Guardian. “We’re putting contaminated water in and taking out valuable metals and clean water, and producing fuel.”
The Wheal Jane mine was shut down in 1992, but the British government has been spending over $3 million on it per year for cleanup and pollution mitigation. The GW4 project is believed to be the first of its kind in the world, with the potential to “remediate” toxic mine water. So far, researchers know that the algae can do the job—they’re just not sure to what extent. “Some of the algae we’ve found in the Wheal Jane site can actually absorb a lot of the metals that are there,” Chuck said. “What we don’t quite know are what metals are being absorbed into the [algae] cell and what are sticking to the cell.”