While most plants cannot grow in contaminated environments, certain species have adapted to thrive there. Moreover, these plants can help to clean contaminated soil by absorbing metal elements such as zinc and nickel into their structures – a technique known as phytoremediation. French researcher Claude Grison has found a way to take this process further by extracting the metals from the plants and using them as a source of catalysts for chemical reactions.
Once the plants have taken up metal elements from contaminated soil, they are harvested and heated to remove all organic matter, leaving only metal salts. These are treated to become catalysts. To date, Grison and her team have successfully used ecocatalysts to synthesise 5,000 different molecules. The technology can be applied for various strategic purposes, such as recovering expensive rare metals, or primary metals with dwindling reserves such as zinc, nickel, copper and manganese. Following decontamination, native species can be replanted in the rehabilitated soil to expand biodiversity.
Grison is professor of bio-inspired chemistry and eco-innovations at Montpellier University and director, among other things, of the French National Centre for Scientific Research. She has founded four start-ups to commercialise her research and works with chemical, pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies, including Belgarena, Colas, Klorane and Chimex.