MSU wild

MSU wild

Montana Hall is pictured on the Montana State University campus on Thursday, June 10, 2021.

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The mineral pyrite, more commonly known as “fool’s gold,” may hold the keys to a domestic-based future in renewable energy.

The Department of Energy, in collaboration with Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines, awarded Montana State University Associate Professor Eric Boyd more than $3.3 million in funding from the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research to better extract the mineral.

The award granted Wednesday is a renewal of funding from 2019 to 2021 that totaled $2 million. The new award will be used to continue research into the next steps of what Boyd dubbed the “bio-mining” of pyrite.

Pyrite is one of the most abundant sulfides in the world, Boyd said. He added that this method of mining will not produce acid, a harmful byproduct of historic mining practices.

The first step was to focus on researching and using enzymes to find ways for microbial cells called methanogens to aid in the extraction of the iron and sulfur components of pyrite, Boyd said.

Those same microbial cells could be used to turn water into bio-hydrogen or other biogasses. The next step is to use the same process to focus on the extraction of critical minerals, or minerals not used for fuel that are essential to the U.S. economy, like nickel and cobalt.

“These aren’t just any metals, but key metals for renewable energy,” Boyd said.

In a virtual press conference, Tester and Daines agreed upon the importance of continuing to fund Boyd’s work. Finding a way to better extract nickel and cobalt, which are used in solar panels, batteries and computer components, would help to ease the country’s reliance on importing these critical metals from around the world, Tester said.

Cobalt in particular is a crucial component in rechargeable batteries. China controls roughly 40% of cobalt mines in the world’s largest cobalt producer, the Democratic Republic of Congo, which produces nearly 70% of the world’s cobalt supply.

“This is a race against China, in many ways,” Daines said. “We’ve got to increase domestic production.”

The process to extract these minerals is still in its early stages, Boyd said. But he and his team have had early success, sending a publication two weeks ago that they are already reviewing.

“We tricked (the methanogens) into bringing more of these metals into their cells,” Boyd said.

Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research funding is granted to areas in the U.S. that are underserved by federal funding in the sciences relative to population size. Montana has four active Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research awards, notably from the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation.

Boyd and MSU were one of nine other recipients to receive funding.

“We want to see investments in Montana, and this is the tip of the iceberg,” said Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm.

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Alex Miller is the county and state government reporter and can be reached at or by phone at 406-582-2648.

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