MISSOULA, Mont. — The U.S. Department of Energy announced $22 million in funding for nine projects Wednesday, including nearly $3.4 million for a research project at Montana State University.
Dr. Eric Boyd explained that microbial cells can extract metals like iron, sulfur, cobalt and nickel from pyrite, also known as fool’s gold, and convert them into molecular biocatalysts, which is a fancy way to describe an enzyme or protein.
Those key metals are used in renewable energy technology like solar panels, wind turbines, battery packs and more. Boyd says there’s not a great domestic supply of those elements, making us more dependent on foreign sources.
Boyd found they can actually trick the cells to not just extract metals but concentrate them, meaning they can pull more metal out of the mineral.
Boyd says it’s a big deal because pyrite is the most abundant source of these metals on Earth, and nobody knew they could use cells to extract metals from them.
“This project is it -- I can't get enough of it. There’s this basic science paradigm challenging discovery aspect of it. Then there’s the application aspect of it. In my mind it's the perfect research project that combines basic science, challenging paradigms for how we think biogeochemical cycling of these elements take place with real-world applications that could benefit our economy and our environment for years to come,” Boyd said, adding that he can’t emphasize how thankful he is to the Department of Energy for funding his team’s work.
Both U.S. Senators Jon Tester and Steve Daines, along with U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm, praised Boyd’s work.
“This is a big deal. This is going to help America invest in research and development in its critical minerals. It also promotes STEM education not only for our country, but in Montana,” Daines said Wednesday. “I think it’s a really important part of our way long term for America to stay competitive in a global economy to increase our investment in R&D and particularly in STEM education. I can’t say enough about the importance of critical minerals and the challenge we face of our dependencies on places like China for critical minerals.”
“I can guarantee you beyond a shadow of a doubt, knowing Professor Boyd, this $3.3 million will be the most productive grant that you’re giving out,” Tester said. “(This grant) tells the rest of the country that we in Montana -- what we already know -- that is our leading research universities like Montana State are at the forefront of next generation research that will help us tackle the biggest challenges of tomorrow.”
Boyd says his team is motivated to get their findings and information out as soon as possible. He says a first publication on this was accepted two weeks ago, but a viable product is likely years away. He says this project is really planting the seeds for the technology to be developed in the mining and energy sector.
“We want to see investments in Montana, and this is the tip of the iceberg,” Granholm said. “I think your work has really exciting implications for extracting critical minerals and remediating contaminated areas. It’s a perfect example of how cutting-edge science helps to tackle our nation’s biggest challenges, and I can’t wait to learn more.”
You can read more about Boyd’s research projects here.