Upon noting the weed’s unique ability to grow anywhere, Edmonton scientist Kelcie Miller-Anderson started investigating what makes dandelions so hardy. Her findings may provide a solution to one of the oilsands industry’s greatest concerns – the noxious tailing ponds created by bitumen mines, which are releasing “toxic and potentially cancer-causing chemicals into the air.”
According to Environment Canada scientist Elisabeth Galarneau, preliminary results from testing done in 2014 revealed that the 176 square kilometres of tailings ponds in the oilsands region are releasing 1,069 kilograms per year of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons into the air. These harmful pollutants are released through the incomplete burning of materials that contain carbon, and are known to cause cancer.
However, thanks to a Miller-Anderson’s discovery, there could be a way to reclaim these lands and reduce their impact on the environment – using the dandelion’s power to sprout up anywhere, even from the pavement of Miller-Anderson’s back alley.
“I did some research and I actually discovered that dandelions are accumulating a fungi into their roots,” said Miller-Anderson in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. “And it’s this relationship between the fungi and the dandelion plant that enables them to really grow anywhere.”
Miller-Anderson’s experiments with dandelions started when she was only 15 years old, in the basement of her Calgary home. Now, Miller-Anderson studies environmental sciences at the University of Alberta, and is the founder of her own company, MycoRemedy.
“Mycelium is the vegetative part of the fungi so this mycelium is able to branch down into the soil and just like mushrooms do in nature, it’s able to digest and remediate the contaminants in that soil,” Miller-Anderson said. “It breaks down the hydrocarbons.”
Oyster mushrooms, which can be found in large clusters throughout the boreal forest, made a powerful conduit for the dandelion spores Miller-Anderson extracted from the roots – within only three weeks of placing the fungi in both solid and liquid tailings, Miller-Anderson saw a “dramatic drop” in the salt concentrations, pH, residual hydrocarbons, and napthenic acids contained in the material.
Seven years later, Miller-Anderson has developed “myco mats,” which work similarly to pieces of sod. These biodegradable mats are laid on the tailings ponds and release “powerful enzymes” that actively devour the hydrocarbon-rich soil.
“Essentially, you roll out the mat and leave it there to do its job,” Miller-Anderson said. “And it’s very rapid. We had in our initial tests, in 21 days, elimination of hydrocarbons from the soil compared to most sites with the dig-and-dump method that takes several years to complete.”
Miller-Anderson’s process is not only quicker than the traditional method of excavating and removing contaminated soil, it’s also all natural and leaves the landscape more or less intact. With more field trials planned for this summer, Miller-Anderson plans to refine her method, allowing the fungi to reach deeper into contaminated soils. She also aims to introduce other applications, like gas stations and abandoned oil well sites, to further reverse some of the damage these industries cause the environment.
“It’s really interesting to me because it’s something that nature is already doing,” she said. “It’s a natural solutions, so it just seems like the best choice.”