BOZEMAN, MT - When we think of energy production in Montana we tend to think about coal, wind, and solar. But bacteria? Not so much.
Montana State University in Bozeman is getting a sizable grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to research how bacteria could potentially be used in bio-mining.
Ultimately, it's a process to extract critical metals used in sustainable energy technology.
MSU geo-microbiologist Dr. Eric Boyd says his research is to better understand how bacteria triggers enzymes to extract precious metals from Pyrite.
Boyd says understanding this can lead to the development of technologies that will be able to replicate the process on a large scale. "They (enzymes) can actually extract the iron and sulfur from this mineral and convert it to molecular biocaps."
Once perfected, scientists like Boyd believes this bio-mining can be used to extract rare metals anywhere from Montana to the moon.
Their focus is on pyrite which is better known to most people as fool’s gold. Through a chemical process, enzymes can be used to not only extract minerals but energy like natural gas.
Boyd explains, "So these enzymes convert water to hydrogen gas or rocket fuel and rocket fuel is in serious consideration as a fuel to fuel electric vehicles."
Boyd shared a video showing the extraction in action on a small scale in a lab. The enzymes are seen in the video converting the pyrite into a black sludge with a byproduct of methane gas bubbling to the surface. Boyd says the methane could be captured and sold.
The work being done at Montana State University started back in 2017. In 2019, the Department of Energy awarded the project a $2 million grant. Now two years later the research will carry forward with a second grant, this time for $3.36 million.
That’s enough money to keep Boyd and his colleagues Devon Payne and Dr. Rachel Spietz busy for another two years.
Senators Steve Daines and Jon Tester believe this research will help keep Montana relevant as an energy producer as the nation works to become carbon neutral.
Senator Tester says, "This particular project can open doors to concentrate metals, helping to bolster our domestic supply. This funding is a direct investment in our future and the stability of our economy."
Senator Daines adds, "This is going to help America invest in research and development for these critical minerals. It also promotes stem education, not only in our country, but in Montana."
Dr. Boyd and his colleagues recently published a paper on their work. You can review that paper here.