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An Update on Phytoremediation:

reviews and case studies on the new technology

Sarah Cedro

Phytoremediation is a new process that cleans heavy metal pollutants from soil and water using
specific plants that sorb and accumulate these elements as biomass. Ever since the industrial
revolution of the 18th century, heavy-metal pollutants have been contaminating soils and water
resources in US and worldwide. Mining sites are the main source of heavy-metal contaminants,
affecting large areas of land, most notably in China as well as in some parts of Europe and the
Americas. In many cases, agriculture has been stunted because of land and soil contamination,
which ultimately affect the populations’ health and livelihood. Many different technologies have
been used to mitigate heavy-metal pollution of the environment, but most have either negative
economical attributions or negative environmental side effects, or both. Phytoremediation, an
emerging remediation technology, has recently been shown to alleviate the heavy-metal
pollutants in soils and groundwater with improved sustainability compared to other commonly
applied technologies. Although, it is a promising technology, phytoremediation has yet to be
confirmed as the ​most​ effective and sustainable method to clean up heavy metal pollution in the
environment. Hence, further studies are being conducted both in the laboratory and in the field to
verify the technology potential and develop standardized application procedures. This paper is
an overview of the advancement of phytoremediation technology over the years and a few
selected case studies are presented to showcase particularly its economic feasibility and

1. Introduction

Phytoremediation is defined as “an economical and environmentally friendly method of

exploiting plants to extract contaminants from soil”, (Xiaoming Wan, et al. 2015), “an efficient
cleanup technology for a variety of organic and inorganic pollutants” (Smits, 2005) and, “a
promising and economically effective technique that uses plant species to decontaminate aquatic
or terrestrial sites contaminated by heavy metals” (Alaboudi, 2018). All in all, it is known as an
inexpensive and effective way to clean up heavy-metal sites nationwide.
So, how does phytoremediation work? In most cases, the plants facilitate biodegradation
or reduction of pollutants in multiple different ways for different classes of pollutants, including
phytostimulation/rhizodegradation, phytodegradation and phytovolatilization. Phytoremediation
in general works best with plant species that are “fast growing, high biomass, competitive, hardy
and tolerant to pollution” (Smits, 2005). Although, the specific classes of phytoremediation
require more specific plant species qualities.
Currently, the United States clears about 80% of the inorganic and organic pollutants
where they apply phytoremediation. In contrast, Europe makes no use of commercial
phytoremediation. This could change in the near future because of the high number of polluted
sites, particularly old mining areas of Europe that need remediation (Smits, 2005). It is expected
that developing countries could opt to use phytoremediation over other techniques because of it
cost effectiveness.
Phytoremediation Advantages

There are multiple advantages to phytoremediation that render it to be an efficient

procedure for environmental cleanup. The first is its cost effectiveness. Although extensive
economic outlooks are not available currently, several case studies have been done on cost
benefits of phytoremediation which will be reviewed later. The energy consumption for the
technique is low, as it is mostly solar powered. It uses the same tools and supplies as most
agricultural methods and it does not take much manpower (Smits, 2005). The only manpower
that is needed is for monitoring the health of the plants. The economic advantage is a big factor
for most government and private operations because there is often very limited funding for
environmental cleanup.
The general public appreciates the process because it is a “green” alternative. Not only
does this product reduce the amount people, animals and the environment exposed to the
dangerous pollutants, but it does so in a “green” way (Smits, 2005). The process produces little
or no harmful air and water emissions since plants rather than chemicals are used, conserving the
natural resources (Susarla, 1999). Although, none of the studies confirm that the process is
sustainable, yet it is always considered“green”. Furthermore there is insufficient data and
evidence to render it a sustainable process.
Phytoremediation doesn’t require new technologies that need to be developed that require
disposal sites. Since the process is i-situ and does not use additives or chemicals, it avoids the
transportation and spread of ​more​ pollutants which reduces the risk of further and additional
contamination. The required materials are the specific plant species that extracts the specific
pollutant most effectively. They can also extract more than one pollutant at a time which is
uncommon using other technologies (Rungwa, 2013). This aspect of the technology will be
further examined in the case studies section.
Phytoremediation Disadvantages

The first limitation is the fact that the plants must be either native to or can be cultivated
at the the polluted site. Even when the adverse factors such as some soil properties, toxicity level
and the effects of climate change may allow the plant growth, the extraction process is still
dependant on the growing conditions required such as climate, geology, altitude and temperature.
Along with this, in order for phytoremediation to be most effective, a lengthy analysis of the site
and the suitability of the plants are required. Specific pollutants are extracted most effectively by
specific plant species. This means success requires the tolerance of the selected plant species to
the specific pollutant. In order to find them, different studies must take place (Rungwa, 2013).
This process may be time consuming and expensive. Time requirements also vary on the process
itself once the studies have been made. Some plants take a couple days to extract a pollutant in
an area, some take months.
Another critical limitation is the plant root depth. The root of the plant must reach the
pool of pollutants in the subsurface in most cases. That limits most of the phytoremediation
processes to shallow ground water areas, near surface soil and sediment layers. Although, this
limitation has some release because the ground could be injected with the plant irrigation.
The bioavailability of the pollutant is another limitation. “If only a fraction of the
pollutant is bioavailable, but the regulatory cleanup standards require that all of the pollutant is
removed, phytoremediation is not applicable by itself” (Smits, 2005). Taking these limitations
into consideration, the most efficient application of phytoremediation may be to augment it with
other technologies.
Another shortcoming is, although using plants to extract pollutants is a “green” solution,
the plants themselves could be harmed by the pollutants. It is possible that animals could
consume these plants if not properly disposed of, causing harm to the animal population.. This
being said, same is true for most other clean-up methods. If the pollutants when concentrated in a
substrate have to be properly recovered, disposed of or made harmless. Meaning, the pollutants
have to go somewhere, and wherever they are or whatever they inhabit, they will still be harmful
Phytoremediation is still an emerging technology with insufficient studies to claim it is
the ​most e​ fficient and sustainable. All of the studies that have been done on it claim that it is
efficient and green, but there is still more to be done to confidently confirm those statements.
This being said, all of the studies on it taking its benefits and limitations into consideration and it
appears to be leading in a promising direction.

2. Types of Phytoremediation Technologies

Table 1, shown below, illustrates the current technology’s goals, locations it can be used
for, the most effective plants identified for the technology and which pollutants each extracts
most effectively.

Table 1.
Rhizofiltration is using plants and their rhizosphere in a hydroponic setup “Trees can be
used a hydraulic barrier to create an upward water flow in the root zone, preventing
contamination to leach down, or to prevent a contaminated groundwater plume from spreading
horizontally” (Smits, 2005).
Phytostabilization is defined as using the plants in order to stabilize the pollutants that are
found in the soil. Plant populations can prevent erosion, leaching, and runoff, or convert
pollutants to their less bioavailable forms (Smits, 2005).
Phytoextraction is defined as using plants to extract the pollutants and gather them in
their tissues. The plants material is then harvested above ground. Post phytoextraction, the plants
can either be recycled or disposed of in a landfill.
Rhizodegradation is defined as using the plants to facilitate, with their rhizospheres,
biodegradation of organic pollutants by bacteria.
Phytodegradation is similar to rhizodegradation, except it is when the plants degrade the
pollutants with their own enzymatic activities.
Phytovolatilization is defined as using the plant tissue to convert the pollutant to its
volatile form because certain pollutants can leave the plant in a volatile form after uptake (Smits,
These phytoremediation technologies are not used exclusively. Many pollutants require
multiple stages of phytoremediation. For example, in wetland environment, the benefits of
accumulation, stabilization and volatilization can occur simultaneously (Smits, 2005). That being
said, different phytoremediation technologies are used for different classes of pollutants.
Additionally, certain plants respond better to specific phytoremediation process. Therefore, site
specific studies are necessary prior to technology application to find the most suitable plant
species, technology and pollutant. In these studies the question being answered should be: which
plant cleans this pollutant up most effectively with which technology?

3. Methods of Application, Mechanisms and Applications of Phytoremediation

In situ phytoremediation is the physical act of putting a live plant in the contaminated
area. The downside is that the plant must be able to reach the contaminant, and the upside is that
it is known as the least expensive method. In-vivo phytoremediation is where the contaminant is
removed from the site and exposed to the plants that remove the contaminant most productively.
In vitro phytoremediation is the most expensive and method where components such as enzymes
are extracted from the plants and then exposed to the contaminants (Susarla, 1999).
Mechanisms of Phytoremediation
Phytoextraction is the act of plants extracting the contaminant from its location.
Phytoaccumulation is when the contaminant bleeds into the plants. The two mechanisms used to
reduce migration of contaminants are phytopumping and phytostabilization. Phytopumping is the
act of plants ‘pumping’ the contaminants out of its location. Phytostabilization uses the plant
roots to alter soil moisture content (Susarla, 1999). Phytotransformation and phytodegradation
are when the contaminants are deteriorated by components of plants such as enzymes.
Phytovolatilization is when the plants convert the contaminant into a volatile form, after which it
is extracted from its location. Rhizodegradation takes advantage of the biological factors of the
plants by enhancing their bacterial and fungal activity within the rhizosphere zone.

Application of Phytoremediation

Munition is the plants ability to transform the contaminants such as trinitrotoluene (TNT)
from its location without any microbial action (susarla). According to Susarla’s case study,
wetlands can effectively remove TNT within 12 days for streams with high concentrations of
TNT. TNT is the most widely studied munition for plants. Chlorinated solvents such as
trichloroethylene (TCE) and tetrachloroethylene (PCE) are widely used chemical and as a result,
are some of the the most common contaminants in water throughout the country.
Phytoremediation has been a successful application for removing/oxidizing TCE in the
rhizosphere in certain types of plants (Susarla, 1999).

4. Things that effect phytoremediation ​(Smits, 2005)

Pollutant Bioavailability
This is one of the limitations explained. Pion-Smits studied this limitation and realized
that “amendments may be added to soil that make metal cations more bioavailable for plant
uptake”. Manipulation soil pH and optimizing water supply may also affect the mobility of the
plant, which increases the bioavailability.
Rhizosphere Processes and Remediation
This limitation has to do with the difficulty of telling the difference between the effects
from the plant of the rhizosphere microbes. In order to relieve this limitation, sterile plants and
microbial isolates were used in lab studies. The two ways to optimize the process is to choose
certain vegetation, and grow the microbial isolates in large quantities.

Plant Uptake
Plant uptake is different organic and inorganic pollutants. There are no transporters for the
compounds in pollutants that are manmade (organic). The transporters occur naturally in
inorganic pollutants because the pollutants are either nutrients themselves or have similar
chemical properties. In order to improve plant uptake is to introduce rhizosphere microbes.

Chelation and Compartmentation in Roots

Plant uptake also has to do with this limitation. Plant tissues with certain chelator
compounds in the roots could also effect the tolerance and solubility and uptake. Smits describes
that “the completion of sequencing of the Arabidopsis and rice genomes should accelerate the
analysis of transporter gene families” (Pag 12).

This process requires a membrane to transport from the root implant into the xylem
apoplast. Although, “the impermeable suberin layer in the cell wall of the root endodermis
prevents solutes from flowing straight from the soil solution into the root xylem”. In order to
make this process more efficient, having it take place in higher temperatures, with moderate
wind, low relative air humidity and high light exposure.
As researchers and scientists learn more about this process of phytoremediation, a
growing acceptance has been spread through the past ten years. It is a more sustainable process
than many other technologies used to clean heavy metal pollutants. Research has proven that it is
cost effective, and this particular study shows that its limitations have ways to get around them.
5. Phytoremediation Case Studies

Cost-Benefit Case Study by Xiaoming Wan, Mei Lei, Tongbin Chen

This study highlighted the fact that relieving soil heavy-metal pollution is very important,
but it can get expensive. Phytoremediation is one of the ways of addressing this problem, but
there has been very little study on the cost analysis of the procedure. This study focused to
determine if phytoremediation or other technologies were more expensive, “favoring work on
reducing costs”, which can help select the right technology to use.
The study took place in Huanjiang County in southwest China where Pb-Zn mines are
distributed and nonferrous mineral resources are rich. These mines spilled in a river during a
massive flood, polluting the water and about 700ha of soil in the vicinity. This either destroyed
or badly damaged crop growth at nearby farms. The soils were tested with quality control before
and after remediation to determine the change in contamination levels.
The costs were split up between initial capital, including the pollution investigation,
establishment of remediation strategy, soil preparation, construction or purchase of nursery
equipment, temporary store, irrigation system, incineration equipment; and the operational costs,
including the cost of labor, cost of large machines, other direct/indirect costs.
Before remediation, the results showed how the average concentrations of As and Pb in
the soil were all higher than the national standards, but the Cd concentration were lower than the
standard. Along with that, certain soils downstream showed concentrations of heavy-metals
higher than the national maximum in food products.
Post remediation, all of the levels decreased during the two year study period
significantly. All of them met national standards which allowed farmers to start growing and
selling crops once again. The resulting cost of phytoremediation was $75,375.2/(hm)^2, or
$37/m^3, as shown in Table 1. This cost was lower than most technologies used to remediate
HM pollution and has a projected benefit to offset the projects within seven years. This
long-term study showed clearly that phytoremediation is the more cost efficient way to
decontaminate soils.

Table 2. ​Costs of Huanjiang phytoremediation project

Phytoremediation of Pb and Cd contaminated soils by using sunflower (Helianthus annuus)

plant by Khalid A. Alaboudi, Berhan Ahmed and Graham Brodie

The different types of phytoremediation are discussed earlier in this review, and this
article mainly focuses on phytoextraction, which is a safe way of removing heavy metals from
contaminated sites. This article reported on the effectiveness of sunflower stems for
phytoextraction of Pb and Cd from impacted soils.
Pots were filled with soil with different concentrations of the heavy metals (Pb and Cd).
Sunflower plant stems were then sown on perlite sand soil mixture in plastic pots and irrigated
with distilled water for two weeks. After eight weeks, the pots were gently removed and
prepared for measurement. Pots with very high metal concentrations resulted in the death of the
plant. Pots with moderate levels resulted in the browning/yellowing of the plant. Lower
concentrations of Pb and Cd in soil resulted growth of the plant. The most growth was that of the
control plant with no metal concentrations.

Table 3. ​Shoot and roots fresh weight and concentration.

Sunflowers are used in phytoremediation because of the high tolerance they have to
heavy metals that contaminate other plants. When measuring plants ability to uptake metal ions,
bioaccumulation and translocation factors have been useful. The study showed, also illustrated in
Table 2, how the Sunflower stems have the ability to accumulate Pb and Cd. Important to note
that Cd was favorable to Pb, as the sunflower stems removed Cd from the contaminated soils
more effectively.
Potential of enhanced phytotechnologies by Nazare Couto, Paula Guedes, Dong-Mei Zhou and
Alexandra B. Ribeiro

This article is discussing the study that enhanced phytoremediation by electrokinetic

(EK) process and/or phosphate amendment in mining areas that have high concentrations of As
and Sb. The electrokinetic process takes place by using direct electric currents to remove
organic, inorganic and heavy metal particles from the soil by electric potential. Electrokinetics
solubilizes the metals and makes them bioavailable. It transport them to the roots where they can
be taken up.
The study was done using soils from southern Hunan Province, China located in the
mining areas. Phytoremediation using Indian mustard and ryegrass with and without phosphate
addition was evaluated. All eight treatments in the trial were performed in a glass greenhouse.
The factors that were measured and analyzed after the process were the As and Sb
concentrations, the available nutrients and enzymatic activities, pH and electrical conductivity,
EC. Another factor that was monitored throughout the entire experiment was the electric current.
There was a fifteen day experimental period where the electric current did not vary too
much throughout the experiment and the pH levels did not change in cells with DC electric field.
Pots with the Indian mustard showed a clear pH change pattern. It increased in the cathode
compartment and decreased in the anode compartment. The pots with only ryegrass had higher
EC values compared with the Indian mustard. Biomass was measured 48% higher in the ryegrass
compared to the Indian mustard biomass. The electrokinetic treatment in fact enhanced Indian
mustard below ground biomass.
Ryegrass was most successfully treated when it was coupled with both treatments where
Sb and As root concentrations were enhanced. “Phosphorous amendment suggests a positive
effect higher metalloids concentration in those from the cathode compartment section”. The EK
process did not affect the concentration of Sb and As in Indian mustard. Regardless, as and Sb
concentrations rose with phosphorous amendment. As determined by the study, the As and Sb
concentrations were relatively higher in the Indian mustard than in the ryegrass.
Indian mustard showed to be more effective when removing As and Sb from
contaminated areas. The phosphorous amendment was the main factor in the effectiveness of the
Indian mustard phytoremediation. The low level DC electric field did not influence the
enzymatic activities and soil nutrient status. Although, the fifteen day period was not enough
time to derive conclusive results for EK application in phytoremediation.

Phytoremediation- An Eco-Friendly and Sustainable Method of Heavy Metal Removal from

Closed Mine Environments in Papua New Guinea Study by Stanley Rungwa, Gabriel Arpa,
Harry Sakulas, Anthony Harakuwe and David Timi’a

Papua New Guinea has been home to many mining sites since 1888, 22 of which are
currently operating. This has caused an uprise in concern ever since the realization that the Ok
Tedi mining company and the Lihir gold mining company are both depositing waste that end up
in the Pacific Ocean. For the past 70 years of operation, all of these mining companies have been
creating a large amount of heavy metals such as Cd, Cu, Fe, Hg, Pb, Zn, which severely impact
the rich biodiversity in Papua New Guinea.
Phytoremediation was introduced in this review as a possible solution. This review
focuses on what phytoremediation is, the different classes of phytoremediation, the advantages
and disadvantages or phytoremediation, the applications of phytoremediation and how it applies
to the case study done in Papua New Guinea. Phytoremediation is most effective when using the
plant that cleans the heavy-metals from the contaminated site most efficiently is used, and this
study suggests which plants could be used in the studied sites throughout Papua New Guinea.
The case study was done in the WauNamie mining site that has been since closed. It was
broken into two different phases: 1) basic research on the environment of the rehabilitation site
along with data collection and 2) identify suggestions for which plants species could clean up the
heavy metals. After nineteen years of closure, randoms samples were taken throughout the study
site and separated into three components: water, soil, garden food.
Mercury was analysed using the cold vapour atomic absorption spectrophotometer
(CVAAS) technique while all other samples were analysed using the inductive coupling plasma
(ICP) technique. Table 4 illustrates the data that was collected. Incredibly high amounts of
heavy metals were found in soils while less were found in creeks, ponds and garden foods.

Table 4. ​Results of Average HEavy Metals Concentrations in Namie rehabilitated mine site.

The potential plant species identified are Piper anduncum, Brachiariareptans and
Phragmites Karka. These were chosen because of the close vicinity to the sites and also their
ability to undergo harsh conditions the heavy-metals create. This case study did not conduct the
further investigation of whether or not these plants effectively clean these heavy metals. A
further study needs to take place in order to confirm these plant species effectiveness.

Environmental Sustainability Assessment of Soil Amendments for Enhanced Phytoremediation

A limiting factor of Phytoremediation is the survival of the plants in the contaminated

locations, and if it is done sustainably. A previous study (Amaya-Santos and Reggy 2017) shows
how an addition of biomass amendment enhances the field-scale phytoremediation of sites with
heavy-metal contamination. This study conducts an environmental impact assessment on four
different organic amendments (biosolids, biochar, compost, animal manure) applied to a
field-scale phytoremediation in order to treat mixed contaminated soil. The results illustrate how
biosolids as organic soil amendment is the most sustainable addition.
The site was located at Big Marsh, in southeaster Chicago, within the Lake Calumet
Region. The site “covers 121 hectares of open space, of which 35 hectares is wetland. Upland
areas are mainly created with foundry slag. Steel-mill slag and fill materials with a high
percentage of iron are found in the soil and sediments, ranging from 2 to 3 meters thick. The site
consists of low herbaceous vegetation and few easter cottonwood trees. The site consists of
different areas with different site conditions representative of the site conditions in the wetland 1)
slag-filled upland, 2) degraded wet meadow, 3) an upland area”. Map 1 illustrates the areas of
the study site.

The actual study uses 0.4 hectares (1 acre) of the study site. Prior to the study, the soil
was tilled and homogenized with the organic amendments added to the soil. The soil and ground
were mixed uniformly to a depth of 0.3 meters and then the plants and organic amendments were
planted. After planting, the site was irrigated once. Based on the previous study, the Panicum
virgatum and Andropogon scoparius plant species were selected. The results were collected and
plotted into graphs and tables shown below.
Table 5. ​Material quantities and the distance of materials to the field site

Figure 2. ​Characterization plot for environmental impacts of production of 1 ton of each


Table 6. ​Environmental impacts of production of 1 ton of each soil amendment

Figure 3. ​Characterization plot for environmental impacts due to total material production and
transportation of each amendment to field site.

Table 7. ​Environmental impacts from production of required quantity of each amendment and its
transportation to field site.
6. Conclusion

Phytoremediation is a promising new technology to remove heavy metal pollutants in

soils. These case studies do not individually prove that phytoremediation is the most efficient
and sustainable option. Although, this review takes all of the studies and reviews into
consideration, and thus, it can be concluded that phytoremediation is currently the most
environmentally and economically friendly option to clean polluted areas. Further studies should
be conducted in larger time periods for other heavy metals to see which plants clean them up
most efficiently. More studies should also be conducted regarding the environmental and
economical impact of phytoremediation. Until then, it is conclusive to say phytoremediation is a
safe, aesthetically please and efficient way to clean up heavy metal pollutants from soils.

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