Scientists will use plants such as alyssum, ferns and a type of mustard called sinapi to soak up metals from derelict land previously occupied by factories, mines and landfill sites.
Some former industrial lands are left with high levels in the soil of metals such as arsenic and platinum, which can cause harm to people and animals.
A team of researchers from the Universities of Edinburgh, Warwick, Birmingham, Newcastle and Cranfield has developed a process of extracting the chemicals – phytoremediation – and are testing its effectiveness.
Once the plants have drawn contamination from the soil, the researchers say they will harvest and then process the plants into materials in a bio-refinery.
Specially-designed bacteria will be added to the waste to transform the toxic metal ions into metallic nanoparticles.
The tiny particles could then be used to develop cancer treatment and can also be used to make catalytic converters for cars, the team said.
Dr Louise Horsfall, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Biological Sciences, said:
“I hope to use synthetic biology to enable bacteria to produce high value nanoparticles and thereby help make land decontamination financially viable.”