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Citizen science urban mining: decontamination of soils

Phytomining is a known phenomenon indicating the ability of some plants to collect and transfer to their aerial section a high concentration of metals from the soils they are growing in. Many studies have approached this plant capability in highly contaminated soils and evaluated their potential for soil remediation and decontamination.

We are now interested in utilising some of these plants to “clean up” the metals present in garden and allotments due to anthropogenic activities such as transports, industry emissions, construction etc. In the summer of 2020, we carried out the first round of trials, our “Friends and Family” trial, to evaluate the feasibility of our scientific concept.

The main aim of our trial was to understand the potential of domestic soil regeneration using a specific mix of metal-collecting plants – grasses and flowers.

The objectives of the trial were to:

  • Understand the type, concentration and the potential sources of soil contaminants in our domestic settings;
  • Evaluate the ability of a mix of metal-collecting plants to cope with different soils and contaminants exposure; and
  • Assess the yield of metals absorbed by the plants
  • Gain experience in the logistics of seeds supply and provision of analysis for domestic applications.

After the trial, we gathered comments from the participants to adjust the mixture of metal-collecting plants (to improve diversity, yield, aesthetics, resilience and invasiveness of the selected plants). All the results are being processed, to provide information back to our participants and eventually for (anonymised) publication to the public.

View on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y0qlaJDhBrA

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We are now ready to start a much larger trial! This second trial will follow a Citizen Science approach and will aim to:

  • Widen the understanding of soil contamination types and sources within the UK;
  • Investigate the behaviour of our plant mixes at different latitudes and further assess the plants ability to thrive in different soils and contaminants concentration;
  • Optimise our plant mixes to ensure that all metals are collected in the aerial part of the plant to allow for easy harvesting;
  • Provide a visual assessment of the soil contamination through the use of flowering plants that change the colour of their flowers depending on the type of metal present in the soil (similarly to hydrangea);
  • Understand if and how we could create a self-sustaining commercial business to provide soil regeneration services for gardeners and allotment users;
  • Assess and improve the metal yields accumulated by the plants;
  • Evaluate the potential for the creation of a sustainable resource of specialist metals while cleaning our gardens.

With a citizen science approach, we intend that all the participants will be co-scientists within the project. All the data, feedbacks and resources that participant gather and share is of uttermost importance to understand the overall results. Such information gathered and shared with the help of participants constitutes open science, an ideology that is imperative in driving such a far-reaching endeavour where we hope to balance the need to unravel such a complex matter while encouraging inclusiveness for all as we plan to evolve this service into a long term commercial venture.

All the data will be fully anonymised for scientific publications and the social media linked to the project will give room for debate and exchange of information between us and our co-scientists.

Take part in our research

If you would like to participate in Brunel’s Citizen Science project (there is no charge) please email Lornaseeds@brunel.ac.uk

We are limited to 200 participants at present, so we hope to hear from you soon. After this trial, we will work on the commercialisation of this concept to provide the service sustainably in the longer term and to fund further research into soil regeneration and contaminants upcycling that form an intrinsic part of Brunel’s research framework.

Information for participants

Meet the Principal Investigator(s) for the project

Related Research Group(s)

Experimental Techniques Centre

Experimental Techniques Centre - A highly regarded cross-disciplinary characterisation facility, with specialist staff that have expertise from various scientific disciplines, e.g. biology, metallurgy, geology and engineering.

Wolfson Centre for Sustainable Materials Development and Processing

Wolfson Centre for Sustainable Materials Development and Processing - Research into the development and processing of new materials including nano-materials, nano-phosphors and nanostructured carbon, biofuels, polymers and bio-polymers.

Project last modified 06/07/2021