Creating Waves of Awareness
The Taiwan Education & Research Center for Bio-Industrial Automation (ERCBA) was formed to cultivate qualified manufacturing, R/D and management professionals for bio-industrial automation to upgrade the bio-industry in Taiwan.
Sunflowers root out radiation
Background Study | Why would anyone want to grow a field of highly radioactive sunflowers?
The engineers who grew them in a pond one kilometer from the crippled Chernobyl nuclear plant ─ an area often called the most radioactive spot on Earth ─ are excited about the possibilities. That’s because this patch of sunflowers marks the first successful field demonstration using terrestrial plants for removing radionuclides from contaminated water, a process known as rhizofiltration.
"The results we have seen at this site, as well as a field test in Ohio, suggest that many radionuclides can be substantially or completely removed from water using rhizofiltration ,” says Burt Ensley, president and CED of Phytotech, a Monmouth Junction, New Jersey-based environmental biotechnology firm.
Contaminants are usually removed by ion exchange, reverse osmosis, microfiltration, precipitation or flocculation. But these methods may be difficult to implement and can be prohibitively expensive for large water volumes, low-metal concentrations and high cleanup standards.
Estimates for cleaning up the 60 US Department of Energy sites that have been identified as contaminated suggest costs of $10 billion using current treatment techniques. Even more widespread contamination is present in Eastern Europe, particularly in areas near Chernobyl.
Certain species of plants that grow rapidly have proven successful in accumulating and removing heavy metals from water.
"Sunflowers have shown to be selective in absorbing metal," Ensley says. "They were able to absorb heavy metals while leaving others － such as iron －behind. This increased their ability to quickly absorb the radionuclides. And, once they have absorbed the radionuclides,the sunflowers are then stabilized, ashed or vitrified and the resulting radioactive waste is stored in a disposal facility."
Activists are asking people to plant and grow sunflowers with a goal of decontaminating soil made radioactive in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. A group of young entrepreneurs and civil servants are asking volunteers to grow sunflowers, then send the seeds to the Fukushima area where they will be planted next year to help clean the soil of contamination.
Fast Company magazine reports that entrepreneur Shinji Handa has sold some 10,000 packets of sunflower seeds to Japanese people at a cost of $6.00 apiece to launch the project. “We will give the seeds sent back by people for free to farmers, the public sector and other groups next year,” said Handa. Besides decontaminating the soil, the organizers hope that the project will promote concern for the afflicted area, as people see a sea of yellow blooms and support the victims of the catastrophe.
Besides the entrepreneurial campaign, Japanese scientists led by a space agriculture professor have already conducted a test by growing sunflowers in the contaminated soil on farmland near the nuclear plant. On July 2 the scientists confirmed that the sunflowers had sprouted. Once the plants have grown and if it is confirmed that they have absorbed significant quantities of cesium, scientists will employ bacteria to decompose the plants, and the result will be treated as radioactive waste.
Not Just Bio-remediation This Is Phyto-remediation
The process of extracting contaminants from the soil via plants is called phytoremediation. While animals can move away from pollutants or other toxics (if they’re lucky), plants have evolved ways to live with the toxics and eventually extract them from the soil. The downside is that the concentrated pollutants, such as radioactivity or lead, can then pass along the food chain if not disposed of properly. Sunflowers were used to suck up radioactive cesium and strontium in a pond at the Chernobyl nuclear accident site in 1994 and to remove uranium from contaminated springs near the Oak Ridge (TN) National Laboratory in 1996.
Fungi, bacteria and plants have remarkable properties that can help clean up the messes that we humans create. While no one solution will solve the problem of irradiated soil and the struggling farmers, it’s always wise to look to nature first for the processes that can heal the land.
Sunflowers reach to the sun, repay with more than seeds.
Sunflowers provide a livelihood and new way of life.