Deploying the Natural World in Smartphone Production

by Matt Klassen on September 8, 2015

As our desire for technological gizmos and gadgets continues to increase, scientists are searching for betters ways to locate, extract, and refine the elements needed in the creation of such technology. To that end, scientists in Germany have discovered a method for extracting the precious element germanium from plants, potentially a huge step forward in finding more sustainably ways to produce our favourite mobile technology.

Germanium has long been a key component of our technological world, a semi-conductor that was first deployed in the creation of transistors, valuable for its ability to quickly and efficiently transport electrical charges. Today silicon-germanium alloy is a crucial element in making today’s technology, indispensable in the creation of computers, smartphones, and fibre-optic cables.

Although germanium is present in soil all over the world, the extraction process has been quite difficult. But scientists inGermanyhave found a method that has the potential to radically simplify the process, cultivating plants with germanium infused water that in turn prompts the plants to create reserves of the element that can be harvested through a fermentation process. Still in its early stages though, scientists have to discover ways to mass produce the element through this process, saying nothing yet of the stress this may put on an already fragile global agricultural system.

Now smartphones are notoriously hard on the environment, containing a veritable toxic soup of dangerous chemicals and elements that have the potential to threaten our very existence. But with this new process for extracting germanium, smartphones may be starting to become slightly more friendly to the natural world. Biology professor Hermann Heilmeier, one of the scientists pioneering this innovative new method to fuel this technological boom, explains the process this way:

“What is being cultivated in this field are various energy crops — for example sunflowers, corn, reed canary grass – but instead of using them for energy purposes we want to use them for phytomining. In German we call it ‘mining with plants’. We want to bring elements that are present in the soil into the roots and shoots of the plants, harvest them and then extract these elements from the plants after they have been used for energy, that is to say fermented,” he said, showing off his field of crops as he measured the moisture levels of the soil.”

“There is zinc ore present here, the ground is very rich in zinc. We have the remains of waste rock piles from mining, which germanium-rich water can drain better through. And when you cultivate plants here and give them that water, they can build up germanium reserves through normal physiological processes. We unlock these reserves through fermentation with the help of bacteria and thus we are able to mobilize the germanium,” Bertau explained.

While there may be some concerns about more and more of the world’s crops being directed away from producing food and towards producing energy and technology related ends,  this process actually piggybacks on existing “energy crop” extraction–the process of refining biogas, the gases released during the breakdown of organic matter, as a sustainable energy source–meaning no additional crops need to be directed towards the extraction of germanium (in theory at least).

“We use the normal biogas process, collect the products of fermentation and all there is left to do then is extract the germanium from them. The processing costs of this downstream step are manageable, so even with these low amounts it is still economically viable,” Bertau said.

Although this process does seem like an efficient and environmentally-sustainable way of finding at least one of the many elements needed to construct our technological world, my fear is, of course, that if it becomes commercially viable it will lure more and more farmers to start growing “energy crops” instead of food crops, yet one more potentially harmful by-product of our technological dependence.

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Written by: Matt Klassen. Follow by: RSS, Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube.

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