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Board of Regents

The Montana Board of Regents meets at Montana Tech in this file photo.

Renata Birkenbuel, The Montana Standard

Gov. Steve Bullock announced $15 million in research grants to the Montana University System at the Board of Regents' meeting Wednesday morning at Montana Tech.

A Montana Tech team will share $495,000 of that money with the University of Montana for research into the recovery of metal contaminants from industrial wastewater -- like that in the Berkeley Pit.

“It’s in-state dollars to solve in-state problems,” Tech Chancellor Don Blackketter told The Montana Standard. “And it’s a problem that’s at the front locally being solved by Montana Tech researchers. We will be able to solve problems in the next five years, not the next 100.”

The money comes from the state general fund, a one-time appropriation that Bullock proposed in the 2015 Montana Legislature. The money will be combined with federal and corporate grants, and research projects are expected to create spinoff private sector businesses.

It is an unprecedented state investment in university-based research that gives local control to Montana researchers and institutions, officials said.

Tech's Jerry Downey, Alysia Cox and H.H. Huang comprise the research team in collaboration with chemistry-biochemical professor Edward Rosenberg of the University of Montana in refining a continuous flow reactor study, a more economical way to extract contaminants from hundreds of former mining sites in Montana, including contaminants in the Berkeley Pit water, said Downey.

Rosenberg's part of the project focuses on nano particles, which capture contaminants.

The governor said it's "an incredible opportunity'' to clean waste water and to turn "our waste water into economic recovery."

He said the money brings together Republicans and Democrats to give them significant leverage to potentially request more research dollars in the next Legislative session. The initiative had wide bipartisan support in the 2015 Montana Legislature.

"Our state has never had such meaningful investment into research,'' Bullock said.

The purpose is to use the state funding as seed money to leverage additional dollars – including federal or private grants -- for research that could help solve Montana problems or create Montana private-sector jobs, said Kevin McRae, Deputy Commissioner for Communications and Human Resources at the Montana Office of Commissioner of Higher Education.

State Rep. Ryan Lynch, D-Butte, a member of the Montana University System's Research Initiative Advisory Panel, said the $15 million initiative is to drive research in Montana "and to turn research into practical applications.''

In turn, it will "drive jobs,'' Lynch added.

Lynch and Downey are especially excited about the initiative's effect on Montana Tech and Butte.

"Recognizing the resource that Tech is to our community and state as a whole, this is an opportunity to leverage (projects) to move our economy and industry,'' said Lynch.

Said Downey: "For us, it's wonderful. I plan to use it for research for one of my doctoral students in the materials science doctorate programs.

"It's a team opportunity for the entire university system and here at Tech, we feel honored to have been selected.''

Downey is with Tech's Metallurgical and Materials Engineering Department. For about 20 years he has worked on a prototype continuous flow reactor, including 10 years previously at the University of Rhode Island, where former colleague Arijit Bose, a chemical engineering professor, developed and patented the initial prototype.

“I came up with the second prototype reactor,” said Downey. “The one we’re looking at will be the third-generation reactor.”

Downey, who has taught at Tech for the last 10 years, foresees the continuous flow reactor ready to go in two or three years.

“Because we’ve had the previous work with the prototype reactor and Dr. Rosenberg’s pattern of success with his composite material, it’s not a matter of if it’s going to succeed,” added Downey. “We know it’s going to succeed. It’s just a matter of how effective we can make the process. We’ve already cleared the proof-of-concept hurdles.”

Eventually, one of the goals is to create a private Montana-based company to synthesize the nano particles and manufacture the reactors, based on what Downey calls “site-specfic” mining areas, which he said could number in the hundreds statewide.

However, such complex, cutting-edge research takes time.

“The public needs to know that it’s research over the long term,” said Blackketter. “This research is intended for the private sector to pick it up.”

Also, the money will allow teammate Alysia Cox of the Tech chemistry-geochemistry department, to fund a master's student working on the continuous flow reactor project.

Downey said the money will mostly pay for labor, including graduate students working on the project and summer salaries for faculty, plus research equipment, among other necessities.

Blackketter emphasized that the state money opens up research possibilities for competitive grants, growing jobs and solving economic development.

Long-term advantages are twofold, added Blackketter: advancing technology to extract heavy metals such as silver out of contaminated waste water, which in turn can be sold, and creating a potentially profitable business in the private sector.

Lynch served on the committee with UM President Royce Engstrom, MSU President Waded Cruzado, Commissioner of Higher Education Clay Christian, Lola Raska of the Montana Grain Growers Association, Ron Zook of Swan Valley Medical, State Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, and Larry Simkins, president of the Missoula-based Washington Companies.

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