CityPress - - Business -

The no­tion that plants, in this case wheat, can be used to ex­tract gold from mine dumps seems so far-fetched it’s mind-blow­ing.

Yet that’s ex­actly what the re­search of vi­va­cious and elo­quent Tshi­amo Le­goale, the daugh­ter of a single mother, Barati Le­goale from Mog­wase near Sun City, has es­tab­lished.

It’s called phy­to­min­ing. The wheat is planted on dumps and en­zymes found in its roots make the gold sol­u­ble.

The plant draws this up into its stems and branches where it stores it. Even­tu­ally it is burnt and gold is ex­tracted from the ash.

What makes Le­goale even more ex­cited about the process is that the wheat seeds, which do not ab­sorb the gold, can be used for food or for the next sow­ing. Also, waste­land is re­ha­bil­i­tated.

The ge­ol­o­gist works in the small-scale min­ing and ben­e­fi­ci­a­tion divi­sion of Rand­burg­based Min­tek, a global leader in min­eral and met­al­lur­gi­cal in­no­va­tion.

“In this divi­sion we work to­wards poverty alle­vi­a­tion, job cre­ation, small-scale min­ing and the up­lift­ment of his­tor­i­cally marginalised South Africans,” says Le­goale.

She’s just re­turned from col­lect­ing rock sam­ples around Licht­en­burg in the North West when we meet at Min­tek.

“Test­ing is be­ing done to see if there are di­a­monds in the area, and if so we hope to trans­fer min­ing and ben­e­fi­ci­a­tion skills to the com­mu­ni­ties there,” ex­plains Le­goale.

She’s in­volved in a num­ber of projects at any one time in South Africa.

She was in the for­merly rich gold min­ing ar­eas of the Free State when us­ing plants to clean up toxic sites be­came a pri­or­ity.

“Wheat is a big crop there so we be­gan re­search­ing how to use it in phy­tore­me­di­a­tion – us­ing plants to ‘heal’ the soil,” she says.

Her con­ta­gious en­thu­si­asm fills the office in the mas­sive high se­cu­rity Min­tek com­plex.

Le­goale set out to study all the avail­able lit­er­a­ture on wheat as a hy­per­ac­cu­mu­la­tor – which means us­ing wheat plants to har­vest gold from mine dumps.

“We com­pared the hy­per­ac­cu­mu­la­tory char­ac­ter­is­tics of dif­fer­ent plants in many tests and tri­als,” says the CI (chief in­ves­ti­ga­tor), as she calls her­self.

It was Le­goale’s idea to work on wheat, “and I moved from the lab into the green­house”.

“But, there’s a lot more lab work still to be done such as in­creas­ing the yield from each crop, from about 49% to 80%.”

In an ideal world she would con­cen­trate her for­mi­da­ble sci­en­tific mind on wheat and gold and not be in­volved with other min­er­als, such as di­a­monds.

“But South Africa doesn’t have enough sci­en­tists to al­low us to do that. We need to fo­cus on the needs of many com­mu­ni­ties.”

She en­thuses about work­ing at Min­tek: “We have cre­ative free­dom and are en­cour­aged and sup­ported.”

Le­goale won the FameLab SA com­pe­ti­tion, Tak­ing African Science to the World, in April this year.

In the mid­dle of June she walked off with the top hon­ours at the in­ter­na­tional con­test, one of the largest of its kind in the world, at the Chel­tenham Science Fes­ti­val in Eng­land. It’s a stun­ning achieve­ment for the grounded and ma­ture young woman who had imag­ined she would study pub­lic re­la­tions when she left school. “But my mother be­lieved I was aca­demic ma­te­rial when I was small. She sent me to Bethel High School for Girls, where I de­vel­oped a pas­sion for science,” she re­calls. Her mother had hoped that Le­goale’s high marks would at­tract a bur­sary and her faith was re­warded when Min­tek stepped up to the plate. She ob­tained her BSc in ge­ol­ogy and then hon­ours in min­er­al­ogy at the Univer­sity of the Free State. She’s now study­ing for her master’s in en­vi­ron­men­tal man­age­ment at the univer­sity. She started as a “sci­en­tist in train­ing” at Min­tek in 2012 and re­gards her­self as for­tu­nate to be able to help strug­gling com­mu­ni­ties as well as work in a lab­o­ra­tory as a sci­en­tist. “Usu­ally, we end up be­ing one or the other. I feel I have a bal­ance in my life.” Le­goale is the mother of a three-year-old but man­ages to re­lax “by watch­ing cartoons with her as well as go­ing to mu­si­cals, which I love”.

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