Billings Gazette: U.S. Energy dept. invests $3.3M in MSU research

by Tom Lutey

The U.S. Department of Energy will invest $3.3 million into Montana State University research focused on the critical ingredients for next-generation batteries and high-tech equipment.

U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm announced the funding during a video conference with MSU researcher Eric Boyd and the state’s U.S. senators, Democrat Jon Tester and Republican Steve Daines. In her comments, the secretary focused on one particular mineral, cobalt, a key ingredient in batteries. Boyd’s work touches on mining methods that are less harmful to the environment.

“We’re grateful that you’re finding these alternatives for us having to get cobalt from the Democratic Republic of Congo, or someplace where they may be using child labor,” Granholm said. “You’re giving us American options for American-made products.”

Boyd, who said MSU already has a mining industry collaborator in its research, described his work as a potentially commercial alternative to oxidative leaching, an environmentally damaging process that has produced acid mine drainage issues at legacy mines worldwide and throughout the West.

Boyd’s research would replace that oxidative leaching process with an alternative that uses bacteria known as methanogens to mine iron, nickel molybdenum, cobalt and sulfur from iron pyrite, better known as fool’s gold.

“One neat aspect of the technology that I’m talking about is, it doesn’t generate acid. In fact, it does the opposite. And so, it’s an environmentally benign way, or at least more benign than oxidative leaching,” Boyd said. “Now, scaling this up will be a challenge, that will be a challenge. And that’ll be something that we’ll have to engage engineers and mining technology experts with and I should just mention, we are partnering with, we have mine partners currently on this project that are very excited about it. Scaling it up and the cost of scaling this up, you know, that will really depend on exactly what we find as we’re digging into these cells and figuring them out, and figuring out how these cells are actually doing this process.”

The $3.3 million grant comes from DOE’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research. Better known as EPSCoR, the grant program has been a staple of the MSU research funding for decades. Boyd said the project would support six MSU faculty members and two research professor’s labs at the Bozeman campus, plus paid internships for more than a dozen student researchers, post-doctorate to undergraduate.

“Now, these aren’t just any metals, these are key metals for renewable energy technology. So nickel is found in solar panels. It’s common in electronics. It’s in the computer circuitry of your phone, of the computer that you’re using to connect to this call,” Boyd said. “Cobalt is a key component of the magnets that convert the mechanical energy in a wind turbine to electrical energy that you use to power your home. Twenty kilograms of cobalt is in every single battery pack in a Tesla.”

Boyd said the microbial cells being researched can pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and make natural gas or for fuel or plastics, pull nitrogen from the air to make ammonia or fertilizer. The cells can convert water to hydrogen gas, or rocket fuel. The research will focus on how this happens.

Tester and Daines both focused on the U.S. dependence on foreign countries for critical minerals, particularly, China which produces 95% of the rare earth minerals used in everything from computer tech to fighter jets and batteries. Control of critical mineral supply became a global issue in 2010 when China began limiting exports in response to the global politics of who owns a chain of islands in the South China Sea.

“This finding is a direct investment in our future, and the stability of our economy,” 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 most importantly, our national security.”

Daines likened China’s global hold on critical mineral supply to the OPEC’s control of petroleum in the 1970s.

“This is a race against China in many ways,” Daines said. “They’re graduating five times more STEM grads than we are. So they’re building a huge innovation ecosystem. Now, we’re going to continue to beat them because we have a lot of advantages. But we have got to increase our domestic production of these critical minerals.”

Over the last decade, whenever China’s control of critical minerals came to boil, U.S. miners turned their attention to Montana and Wyoming as possible sources for rare earth minerals, most recently in 2019 when the Trump administration called for new, favorable mining rules promoting the domestic extraction of 35 critical minerals, including rare earths.

In June 2019, Courtney Young, a professor at Montana Tech’s Metallurgical and Materials Engineering Department, told The Gazette it would take federal subsidies to jump-start mining of critical earth minerals in the United States. The price of rare earth minerals are too cheap to spur a market response in the U.S. without a government response.

Mining companies eyed Montana and Wyoming for rare earth mines as recently as 2014, but nothing came of it.

In 2013, an Arkansas company drilling for rare earth minerals along the Montana-Idaho line was progressing. It had drilled 18 test holes spread across 25,000 acres of the Lemhi Pass area, mostly in the Last Chance Mine footprint of Montana and the Idaho North Fork area. Prospectors told The Gazette the U.S. Geological Survey records on minerals found in the mining area offered some guidance on where to start sampling.

In Wyoming, where the Bear Lodge rare earth mine project was pursued, low prices got the venture mothballed. Bear Lodge was a mining project five years old and costing $290 million by the time it failed in 2016.

There is one rare earth mine active in the United States today, the Mountain Pass Mine in California, that went bankrupt in 2015 but sold and was operating again in 2020. The U.S. Defense Department issued $9.6 million to Mountain Pass owner MP Materials last November.

Weeks into his term, President Joe Biden signed an executive order concerning supply chains critical to national security and the economy. Critical minerals were part of the order.