In Germany, professor Hermann Heilmeier and his team have figured out a way to extract germanium from plants. Germanium is an element once used in transistors, and is now used in computers, smartphones, and fiber-optic cables. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to extract from the soil where it is found, and most of the world’s supply comes from China.
China isn’t the only place with germanium though, and with a new extraction process, it might be possible to increase germanium yields across the world, with some other added benefits. The process developed by Heilmeier and his team uses energy crops, like corn or sunflowers, which are used in making biogas. Those plants are fermented for use as fuel, and in turn, germanium that has been drawn up into the plants from the soil can be extracted during the fermentation process. It even uses the same bacteria that are creating the biogas in the first place.
The process is pretty economical because it is essentially a byproduct of an existing process. Once the process is perfected, which everyone wants to see before they’ll implement it in their plants, it could be a real boon for the biogas industry. Chances are that it’s cleaner and more ecologically sound than whatever process the Chinese are using to harvest germanium, which would make it cheaper and make the element more accessible, possibly even reducing the cost of electronics, which could benefit lower income families that can’t afford the current prices for computers and other devices.
And, it might help promote the use of biogas, which is a much cleaner burning fuel than natural gas or fossil fuels. If companies that produce biogas can also extract germanium for additional profit, they’re likely to push their product harder. It might even temp companies that produce fossil fuels to even consider switching over. Only time will tell, but making environmentally safer options more appealing to corporations is an important step in fighting saving the Earth.