Pyrite, also known as “Fool’s Gold.” (Photo by pnjuction2007/Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA 2.0)
The U.S. Department of Energy on Wednesday announced a $3.4 million grant aiding in a Montana State University microbiologist’s efforts to better understand how certain microbes can “bio-mine” economically significant materials from pyrite, more popularly known as “fool’s gold.”
The grant is part of the DOE’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, or EPSCoR, which announced this week $22 million in funding for several projects at universities across the country, many of them in the realm of renewable energy development and the production of materials needed to deploy technology like solar panels and electric car batteries.
Indeed, that’s one of the potential applications of Eric Boyd’s research, he said at an event announcing the funding Wednesday.
The main thrust of the project is to determine how certain cells can extract metals from pyrite — technically iron disulfate — and convert them to enzymes that act as molecular biocatalysts in the production of things like fertilizer, methane gas and even liquid hydrogen.
“These are enzymes that convert water to hydrogen gas — or rocket fuel, a serious consideration for electric vehicles,” Boyd said. “Enzymes synthesized from this mineral can pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and convert it to methane or natural gas, which can be used to heat homes. These enzymes that are synthesized from this mineral can be used to pull nitrogen gas from the atmosphere and convert it into fertilizer.”
Understanding exactly how this process plays out allows for the future engineering “of other platforms to improve production,” Boyd said.
Already this research has produced one study recently accepted for publication, he said.
Another important implication of the use of pyrite in this process is that it’s a prevalent source of nickel, cobalt and some rare-earth metals used in renewable energy production, Boyd said. Nickel is found in solar panels, and cobalt in electric car batteries and wind turbine magnets, for example.
“We’re actually able to trick these cells to not just extract the metals but also concentrate these metals,” Boyd said. “Potentially this is a way to concentrate cobalt, nickel, iron for economic recovery.”
Another benefit is that the technology in Boyd’s research — however far-off in commercial application it may be — is more environmentally benign than oxidative leeching, which has been used to extract metals from “pyritic ores” in the past but creates acid runoff.
Aside from the implications for moving away from fossil fuels, this also has potential geopolitical importance. Montana U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines both spoke at an announcement of the funding of their desire to see the U.S. produce more rare-earth elements used in cutting-edge technology and military applications called “critical minerals,” also a focus of both the Biden and Trump administrations. China mines or synthesizes the vast majority of these minerals and makes up the bulk of the U.S.’s supply, which the government fears could lead to supply chain disruptions.
“This particular project could open doors to concentrate metals, helping bolster our domestic supplies,” Tester said. “We rely on a lot of critical minerals coming in from around the world, and while those trade networks are critical, finding innovative ways to increase our own domestic supply of these metals will be important for our manufacturers, our energy generation and our national security.”
Daines touted and called for the U.S. House of Representatives to take up bipartisan legislation passed in the Senate called the United States Innovation and Competition Act of 2021, which boosts federal funding for science research and development as a direct challenge to China. That country has in turn criticized the proposal for embracing a Cold War-era mindset.
“It’s a race with China, in many ways,” Daines said.
Imports from China accounted for 80% of the U.S.’s stock of rare-earth metals and compounds from 2015 to 2018, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. China also owns mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where 70% of cobalt is mined.
Biden-appointed DOE Secretary Jennifer Granholm said Wednesday that the administration sought to distribute EPSCoR funding to schools and regions where federal research and development funding may not flow as voluminously, creating pathways for interactions between researchers across the country and federal grantmaking authorities.
“These hard to solve problems, like tackling the climate crisis, are too big to not be tapping the expertise of the best and brightest scientific minds in every pocket of our country,” Granholm said. “This is about building capacity in rural and underfunded communities all across the nation. And it’s about giving brilliant research teams and professors a path or stepping stone into the DOE ecosystem in the future as well.”
She said the Biden Administration is intent on seeing research funding and economic development especially in areas that rely on revenue from fossil fuels, much like parts of Montana, as well as areas that disproportionately feel the damages of man-made climate change.
Boyd said after the announcement that MSU receives around $5 million through EPSCoR-funded grants a year on average.
“Smaller states simply have a more difficult time competing with these larger institutions. Enter the EPSCoR program, which is aimed at trying to even that a bit,” he said.
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