MSU professor receives $3.4 million DOE grant to continue biomining research

By Reagan Colyer, MSU News Service

06/28/2021 Eric Boyd, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., 406-994-7046

Summary: Eric Boyd received the second phase of funding through the federal EPSCoR program to study microorganisms that can extract trace metals from pyrite, also known as fool’s gold.

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BOZEMAN — The U.S. Department of Energy announced this week more than $22 million in funding focused on energy research, $3.4 million of which will fund continuing research at Montana State University into microorganisms that display the ability to extract important and useful metals from pyrite, an abundant mineral in the Earth’s crust. 

Associate professor Eric Boyd and his team in the College of Agriculture’s Department of Microbiology and Cell Biology and the College of Letters and Science’s departments of Earth Science and Chemistry & Biochemistry have studied the microorganisms since 2019. Now, the grant from the DOE’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, or EPSCoR, will fund the second phase of the project.

“Our project was motivated by the realization that there are microbial cells that can take pyrite and extract the iron and sulfur, then convert these metals to enzymes which are of key biotechnological importance,” said Boyd. “These enzymes can pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and convert it into methane, or natural gas, which you can use to heat your home. [They] can be used to pull nitrogen gas out of the atmosphere and convert it to ammonia, which a farmer can put on his field to improve productivity.”

The second phase of the project will seek to explain exactly how the microorganisms accomplish these tasks. Identifying how these microbes function, Boyd said, could be a major step forward in the science of renewable energy and technology. Part of that is due to the fact that pyrite is also a source of nickel and cobalt, which are critical elements in many forms of sustainable technology.

“Nickel is found in solar panels. It’s common in electronics and it’s in the circuitry of the computers and phones we use every day,” said Boyd. “Cobalt is a key component of the magnets that convert the mechanical energy in a wind turbine into electrical energy. These are key metals for renewable energy technology.” 

The EPSCoR funding will support work by six faculty members, two research professors, nine postdoctoral students, four graduate students and numerous undergraduate students for two years. It will be used for new instruments to improve technical capabilities in a number of MSU labs and will make the university more competitive for other funding opportunities in the future, Boyd said. 

“We want to see investments in Montana, and this is the tip of the iceberg,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm in a June 23 press conference announcing the funding. “I think [Dr. Boyd’s] work has really exciting implications. It’s a perfect example of how cutting-edge science helps tackle our nation’s biggest challenges.”

The EPSCoR program was designed to engage communities and institutions that are often underrepresented in federal research and development funding, so all regions of the U.S. can contribute to progress in the fields of climate and renewable energy research. Other EPSCoR-funded projects across the country touch on materials science, solar and wind energy, and power grid integration.

For Boyd, it was important to apply this federal support to a project that connects directly back to Montana and its natural resources.

“This project combines basic science, challenging paradigms for how we think biogeochemical cycling takes place, and real-world applications that could benefit our environment and our economy for years to come,” he said.

This story is available on the Web at: http://www.montana.edu/news/21264

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