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Due to safety concerns related to landslides (or sloughs) along the Pit rim, the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology has not taken this research boat out on the Pit lake for water quality sampling since 2012.

Drones in the works for water quality sampling

Montana Resources and Atlantic Richfield are currently funding a Montana Tech graduate student to develop a remote system to sample Pit water quality. The student will review options to collect the required data, including aerial or water-based drones that can be operated from the shore of the Pit.

Due to the size of the Pit and the need to collect samples from locations throughout it, the ability to communicate with the drone at a distance of up to 2 miles is essential. Work began during the summer of 2015 and will continue through the 2015-2016 academic year and summer 2016, with final testing during the June and July, and collection of Pit samples by August 2016.

Electrical engineering assistant professor Bryce Hill is supervising the project. He said the device could potentially be used for applications beyond the Berkeley Pit.

Read more on the project from The Montana Standard.

Due to safety concerns related to landslides (or sloughs) along the Pit rim, the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology has not taken this research boat out on the Pit lake for water quality sampling since 2012.
Due to safety concerns related to landslides (or sloughs) along the Pit rim, the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology has not taken this research boat out on the Pit lake for water quality sampling since 2012.

2015 Science Fair Award Winners

The Berkeley Pit Education Committee awarded savings bonds to four grade school students and one high school student who competed in the 2015 Montana Tech Science and Engineering Fair. Each of their Fair projects explored important topics related to the Berkeley Pit and mine waste cleanup technologies. Congratulations to everyone who competed in the Fair, and keep up the good work!

Berkeley Pit Award Winners in Division II (Elementary School):

  • Daniel Gao
  • Heath Caldwell
  • Shelby Klein
  • Zander Farmen

Berkeley Pit Award Winner in Division I (High School):

  • Riley McVey

Montana Tech geothermal project heats up

The 10,000 miles of underground tunnels beneath Butte have filled with water since the closure of the Berkeley Pit and, in 1982, the shut-off of groundwater pumps that had dewatered the underground in the past. These waters are typically regarded as a liability, but a new project at Montana Tech is viewing the watery mines of Butte as a potential asset.

Tech has been funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 to develop a demonstration system for capturing geothermal energy from mine waters beneath Butte. The demonstration will involve the installation of a heat-pump system in Tech’s new Natural Resources Building. The system will provide geothermally-based climate control for the building, illustrating the feasibility of using mine waters in heat-pump systems.

The project utilizes some of the advantages of mine waters compared to other sources of groundwater. Easy access to mine waters
already exists in the form of mine shafts, saving the costs of drilling wells. Butte mine waters are also unusually warm; the mine waters used in this project are consistently 78°F (25°C). Additionally, it takes a lot of water to fill 10,000 miles of tunnel, so there is plenty available for geothermal applications.

Estimates show that heating costs for the Natural Resources Building could be cut by more than half by preheating incoming air with mine waters. By reducing energy needs that would traditionally be met by burning fossil fuels, the project has the added benefit of promoting environmental sustainability by reducing emissions. The concept could also be extended to other regions where warm geothermal waters exist.In mining communities that lie in warmer climates than Butte, cooler mine waters could be used similarly, but for cooling rather than heating.

The project is currently in its early phases. After a feasibility study is completed this year, if all goes as planned, construction could begin in 2011. If successful, the project could be applied to buildings throughout Butte.

Limnocorrals, experimental enclosures which physically isolate a known volume of water and allow for the testing of various experimental manipulations at a relatively low cost, deployed in the Berkeley Pit. Photo by Nicholas Tucci.

Research continues on Pit Water

The unique environment of the Berkeley Pit and the surrounding Butte area has created numerous avenues for scientific exploration, both by local scientists and by researchers around the globe.

The research potential of the site is tremendous, and may represent a real renaissance for a geographic area characterized by years of mining, milling, and smelting waste. Research efforts have been undertaken locally at Montana Tech, the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology, and MSE, and research groups from around the world have studied Pit water.

On a more local level, a cursory scan of Montana Tech Library resources turns up 23 thesis publications devoted specifically to researching aspects of the Berkeley Pit, as well as many more Pit-related research publications. And the research covers a diverse array of topics, including environmental engineering, geology, communications, metallurgy, chemistry, and physics.

A 1994 thesis by David Klemp, a graduate student in the Montana Tech Environmental Engineering program, investigated fog from Berkeley Pit water, a site familiar to most Butte residents. A 1996 thesis by Neil Massart, also from the Environmental Engineering program, offered an economic analysis of a crystallization process that was part of a broader evaluation of the potential for innovative technologies to remediate the Pit.

A large volume of additional research has focused on the study of various methods for bioremediating Pit water or the use of different technologies to treat Pit water. Other studies, like that carried out by Montana Tech Chemistry and Geochemistry graduate student Licette Hammer in 1999 and a similar study done by graduate student Margery Willett in 2001, focus on the amount and types of organic carbon present in the Pit, and the relationship between organic carbon and the larger Pit ecosystem.

In addition to the regular staff of scientists and undergraduate assistants at Montana Tech, the Stierles, at center, have also worked with local high school and middle school students over the years on science fair projects focused on Berkeley Pit microbes. The realization that a compound that could help cure cancer could be lurking in the Berkeley Pit is thrilling. They like to think that their microbes could be some of the richest "ore" ever mined from the Richest hill on Earth. Photo courtesy of Lisa Kunkel, The Montana Standard.
In addition to the regular staff of scientists and undergraduate assistants at Montana Tech, the Stierles, at center, have also worked with local high school and middle school students over the years on science fair projects focused on Berkeley Pit microbes. The realization that a compound that could help cure cancer could be lurking in the Berkeley Pit is thrilling. They like to think that their microbes could be some of the richest “ore” ever mined from the Richest hill on Earth. Photo courtesy of Lisa Kunkel, The Montana Standard.

Local scientists Drs Andrea and Don Stierle, both faculty members in the Department of Chemistry and Geochemistry at Montana Tech, recently garnered national publicity for their research, ongoing since 1996, on microbes living in the Berkeley Pit Lake. The unique nature of the Pit environment creates habitat for unusual microbes, sometimes called “extremophiles”, which could in turn produce novel chemistry with potential medical uses. The organisms themselves may also be effective bioremediators of the wastewater in which they grow.

The Stierles, aided by undergraduate research assistants at Montana Tech and local high school students and collaborating with scientists at Montana State University and the University of Montana, are “mining” these Pit microbes. They have already isolated several exciting new compounds, including a migraine preventative and several compounds with promising anticancer potential. They have also found an intriguing fungus that appears to pull metals from the Pit water itself.

The research process is complex. Microbes must first be isolated from water and sediment samples and established in pure cultures. A variety of carbon and nitrogen sources are used to determine which growth conditions yield the most active natural products. Extracted microbial cultures are tested to determine if they have potential as antibacterial, antifungal, anticancer, or immune system modulating agents.

The Stierles have been awarded almost $3 million in federal funding from the National Institutes of Health and the US Geological Survey to support their ongoing efforts at drug discovery from an acid mine waste lake.

Other scientists have experimented with the potential of algae to clean or bioremediate the Berkeley Pit. For most of the past decade, Dr. Grant Mitman, a Montana Tech biology professor, has been studying the ability of algae to remove heavy metal contaminants from Pit water. Through various metabolic, physiological, and biochemical processes, algae have the potential to reduce soluble metal ions in acid mine waters.

Limnocorrals, experimental enclosures which physically isolate a known volume of water and allow for the testing of various experimental manipulations at a relatively low cost, deployed in the Berkeley Pit. Photo by Nicholas Tucci.
Limnocorrals, experimental enclosures which physically isolate a known volume of water and allow for the testing of various experimental manipulations at a relatively low cost, deployed in the Berkeley Pit.

Dr. Mitman, along with graduate student Nicholas Tucci, applied this potential bioremediation solution in the Berkeley Pit in 2006. Algae occur naturally in the Pit, but lack nitrate, a common nutrient found in most fertilizers that is essential for algal growth. If nitrate is added to Pit water, the naturally occurring algae can potentially reach a concentration of millions of cells per milliliter, a virtual green soup of suspended organisms that have an ability to permanently remove dissolved metals from the pit. These organisms have been used to remediate other pit lakes around the world, and may one day lead to the natural restoration of the Berkeley Pit.

In the spring of 2004, Mitman and Tucci deployed nine acid- and metal-resistant cylindrical limnocorrals along the eastern edge of the Berkley Pit Lake. Limnocorrals are experimental enclosures which physically isolate a known volume of water, and allow for the testing of various experimental manipulations at a relatively low cost.

In this case, 500 gallons of pit water were used to fill the limnocorrals, and varying concentrations of nitrate were added as the experimental variable.

To determine if algal growth had an effect on Berkeley Pit water, water quality and algal populations in nutrified limnocorrals were continually monitored and compared with those in non-nutrified limnocorrals.

After the first year of data collection, concentrations of algae in the nutrified limnocorrals had increased from undetectable levels to two million cells per milliliter, and, as a result of this algal growth, both iron and arsenic concentrations in Pit water were significantly reduced. No significant changes in water quality or algal growth were detected in the non-nutrified limnocorrals.
Researchers are planning longer-term experiments testing the ability of algae to clean Berkeley Pit water. Algae, like other biological organisms, need time to achieve a substantial and healthy population. Long term experiments will be necessary to fully determine the potential for bioremediation in the Berkeley Pit.

While substantial research has been done on the Pit, there is clearly still a lot to learn. That is an exciting prospect for the Butte community, and in the future what we can learn from the Pit could represent the greatest treasure of the Richest Hill on Earth.

Many students and teachers are learning about science by visiting the Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana.

Many are learning from the Berkeley Pit

Many students and teachers are learning about science by visiting the Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana.
Many students and teachers are learning about science by visiting the Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana.

From grade school through college, many classes have visited the Pit in order to learn about science, mining, and the history of the region.

In the past year, students from not only the Butte area, but also from around Montana made the trip to the Pit. Middle school students from Bonner school  and college students from Montana State University-Billings and the University of Montana Environmental Studies programs have visited the Pit and the Butte area annually for the past few years.

Teachers as well as students are learning from the Pit and taking that knowledge back to their classrooms. For example, in 2007 Montana Resources provided a tour of the Pit and surrounding area for a group of 15 western Montana teachers. Seeing the Pit up-close and in-depth provides teachers with real-world examples of science concepts and issues that can then be used to engage students in the classroom.

These inquisitive spectators have learned about the details of the Pit from a variety of community volunteers and experts. Butte resident Joe Griffin, an environmental science specialist with the Department of Environmental Quality, offers students a comprehensive view of the science surrounding the Pit.

Tad Dale regularly takes time away from his busy schedule at Montana Resources to share his wealth of knowledge about the Pit and mining. Scientists from the Montana Tech faculty often come out to discuss the Pit in light of their specialties, whether it is Andrea and Don Stierle talking about biology and their research on the unusual microbes living in the Pit environment or Colleen Elliott presenting the geological context of the Pit.

And, of course, thousands of tourists learn about the Pit every year through the Butte trolley system, guided by knowledgeable locals like Butte High School history teacher Chris Fisk. Thanks to the contributions of knowledgeable Butte citizens like these, the Berkeley Pit viewing stand serves as an exciting classroom for exploring environmental sciences.

Limnocorrals, experimental enclosures which physically isolate a known volume of water and allow for the testing of various experimental manipulations at a relatively low cost, deployed in the Berkeley Pit. Photo by Nicholas Tucci.

Can Algae Clean the Berkeley Pit?

Limnocorrals, experimental enclosures which physically isolate a known volume of water and allow for the testing of various experimental manipulations at a relatively low cost, deployed in the Berkeley Pit. Photo by Nicholas Tucci.
Limnocorrals, experimental enclosures which physically isolate a known volume of water and allow for the testing of various experimental manipulations at a relatively low cost, deployed in the Berkeley Pit.

What started off as small experiments in the laboratory studying Berkeley Pit water in small flasks, has transformed into a much larger, bench-scale field experiment using the Berkeley Pit lake as the laboratory and limnocorrals as giant test tubes suspended in the contaminated water.

For most of the past decade, Dr. Grant Mitman, a Montana Tech biology professor, has been studying the ability of algae to remove heavy metal contaminants from Berkeley Pit water. Through various metabolic, physiological, and biochemical processes, algae have the potential to reduce soluble metal ions in acid mine waters. Dr. Mitman, along with his graduate student, Nicholas Tucci, have applied this potential bioremediation solution in the Berkeley Pit.

Algae occur naturally in the Berkeley Pit, but they lack one essential nutrient for growth-nitrate-a common nutrient found in most fertilizers. If nitrate is added to pit water, the naturally occurring algae can potentially reach a concentration of millions of cells per milliliter, a virtual green soup of suspended organisms that have an ability to permanently remove dissolved metals from the pit. These organisms have been used to remediate other pit lakes around the world, and may one day lead to the natural restoration of the Berkeley Pit.

In the spring of 2004, Mitman and Tucci deployed nine acid- and metal-resistant cylindrical limnocorrals along the eastern edge of the Berkley Pit Lake. Limnocorrals are experimental enclosures which physically isolate a known volume of water, and allow for the testing of various experimental manipulations at a relatively low cost. In this case, 500 gallons of pit water were used to fill the limnocorrals, and varying concentrations of nitrate were added as the experimental variable. Each limnocorral, open at the top and closed at the bottom, measured three feet in width and 10 feet in depth.

Throughout the course of a year, water-quality criteria and algal populations in nutrified limnocorrals were continually monitored and compared with those in non-nutrified limnocorrals to determine if algal growth had an effect on Berkeley Pit water. After the first year of data collection, concentration of algae in the nutrified limnocorrals had increased from undetectable levels to two million cells per milliliter. Additionally, as a result of algal growth, both iron and arsenic concentrations in the pit water were significantly reduced in the nutrified limnocorrals. No significant changes in water-quality or algal growth were detected in the non-nutrified limnocorrals.

The researchers are planning longer term experiments testing the ability of algae to clean Berkeley Pit Water. Algae, like any other biological organisms, need time to achieve a substantial and healthy population. Long term experiments are necessary to fully determine the bioremediation potential in the Berkeley Pit.

In addition to the regular staff of scientists and undergraduate assistants at Montana Tech, the Stierles, at center, have also worked with local high school and middle school students over the years on science fair projects focused on Berkeley Pit microbes. The realization that a compound that could help cure cancer could be lurking in the Berkeley Pit is thrilling. They like to think that their microbes could be some of the richest "ore" ever mined from the Richest hill on Earth. Photo courtesy of Lisa Kunkel, The Montana Standard.

Bioprospecting in the Berkeley Pit


The search for valuable natural products from a most unnatural world

by Andrea and Don Stierle

In addition to the regular staff of scientists and undergraduate assistants at Montana Tech, the Stierles, at center, have also worked with local high school and middle school students over the years on science fair projects focused on Berkeley Pit microbes. The realization that a compound that could help cure cancer could be lurking in the Berkeley Pit is thrilling. They like to think that their microbes could be some of the richest "ore" ever mined from the Richest hill on Earth. Photo courtesy of Lisa Kunkel, The Montana Standard.
In addition to the regular staff of scientists and undergraduate assistants at Montana Tech, the Stierles, at center, have also worked with local high school and middle school students over the years on science fair projects focused on Berkeley Pit microbes. The realization that a compound that could help cure cancer could be lurking in the Berkeley Pit is thrilling. They like to think that their microbes could be some of the richest “ore” ever mined from the Richest hill on Earth. Photo courtesy of Lisa Kunkel, The Montana Standard.

Most people think of the Berkeley Pit as a large toxic waste lake, an unfortunate relic of Butte’s proud mining heritage. Don and Andrea Stierle, however, see the Pit as something more. Like most of their Natural Products Chemistry colleagues, the Stierles could be searching the rainforests of Brazil or combing Caribbean reefs for plants and microorganisms that could yield promising new drug leads. Instead they are exploring the uncharted expanses of the Berkeley Pit, which they see as a unique ecosystem with treasures beyond the vast amounts of copper dredged from this site for over 25 years.

Anyone living in Butte is probably familiar with the history of the Pit and its current status as a mine waste lake. The Superfund strategy will keep the 36 billion gallons of acidic, metal-rich water from ever escaping the Pit. Until 1995, however, little attention was paid to the biological aspects of this bleak ecosystem because it was considered too toxic to support life.

Andrea and Don Stierle set out to change that belief as they launched a new type of exploration in Berkeley Pit Lake – mining for microbes. And not just any microbes – they were looking for microbes that could produce new compounds with real drug potential.
The Stierles are not new to drug discovery. For the past twenty years they have looked for anti-AIDS compounds in Bermudian sponge bacteria, anticancer agents in the bark of redwood trees, and in 1993 found a fungal source for taxol, an important anticancer compound previously isolated exclusively from the bark of the elusive yew tree. Andrea even had the fungus named after her. But they had never before explored acid mine waste as a source of the next anticancer agent.

Since 1996 the Stierles, and their team of undergraduate researchers, have isolated and studied a collection of over fifty culturable bacteria and fungi from one of the more extreme environments in the lower 48 states.

The Stierles believed that this unusual environment would harbor unusual microbes, which could in turn produce novel chemistry that can be exploited in many ways. The organisms themselves may also be effective bioremediators of the wastewater in which they grow. Their metabolic by-products could have a tremendous impact on the overall ecology of the Pit Lake system by raising the pH of the Pit water, by providing nutrients for other heterotrophs, and by adsorbing metal contaminants. Thus, the research potential of this site is tremendous, and may represent a real renaissance for a geographic area characterized by years of mining, milling, and smelting waste.

The Stierle lab uses a unique tool chest for their “mining venture”. Armed with chromatography columns, signal transduction enzyme inhibition assays, a series of antimicrobial testing schemes, and a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer assay, they are literally mining this unnatural system for microbes that produce bioactive natural products.

Microorganisms have been an important source of anticancer agents and antibiotics agents of all types since the discovery of penicillin in the 1930’s and 40’s. Over the years pathogenic microbes develop resistance to widely used drugs and newer more effective antibiotics must be found.

The challenge of Natural Products Chemists like the Stierles is to find new populations of microbes and to effectively isolate compounds with desired biological activity from these organisms. The Stierles have already isolated several exciting new secondary metabolites from the microbial inhabitants of this unusual ecological niche. These compounds include a migraine preventative and several compounds with promising anticancer potential. They have also found an intriguing fungus that appears to pull metals from the Pit water itself.

How would you actually find new bioactive compounds from a Berkeley Pit microbe? It is a complex process. First, the Stierles isolated microbes from water and sediment samples and established them in pure cultures. Each microbe was grown in a series of small liquid culture broths to provide adequate biological material for testing and analysis. This is not an ecological study so the Stierles are not limited to nutrient broths that mimic conditions in the Pit Lake. Instead they use a variety of carbon and nitrogen sources and determine which growth conditions yield the most active natural products. To determine the activity of the compounds produced by their microbes the Stierles must first thoroughly extract each microbial culture using different organic solvents. These extracts are then tested using a series of bioassays or biological tests that can determine if they have potential as antibacterial, antifungal, anticancer, or immune system modulating agents. These tests are used to guide the isolation of pure active compounds from the complex microbial extracts.

Each extract is first tested against a suite of human pathogenic microorganisms, including Staphylococcus aureus, and Streptococcus pneumoniae. In collaboration with Montana State University researcher Allen Harmsen the Stierles are also looking for compounds that show activity against Pneumocystis carinii, causative agent of Pneumocystis carinii Pneumonia, an indicator disease of AIDS patients, and Aspergillus, causative agent of aspergillosis, both of great concern in immunocompromised individuals.

To find compounds with anticancer activity the Stierles use a complex series of signal transduction enzyme assays that identify specific enzyme inhibitors. Inhibition of key enzymes can be an indication that a compound could block the initiation or spreading of cancer cells. In collaboration with University of Montana researcher Keith Parker the Stierles are also looking for compounds with antimigraine activity. The first compound they isolated from their Pit microbe collection showed promise as a migraine preventative.

Looking for active natural products in this unnatural world has been exciting and challenging for the Stierle Research Lab. Although their first four years of work were completely self-funded they have been able to attract support from the US Geological Survey and from the National Institutes of Health. Through their funding they have been able to create new jobs in Butte, hiring two research scientists and a host of talented undergraduates to help them with their work. They have also worked with very talented and hard-working Butte High School students Alexandra Antonioli and Kels Phelps, and East Middle School student Randi Phelps whose ongoing Science Fair projects focused on Berkeley Pit microbes. And Andrea has found that after 26 years at Montana Tech, it has been nice to actually earn a real salary for all of the work she does in the lab. But it isn’t the funding that keeps the Stierles looking for new compounds. It is the thrill of discovery, the realization that a compound that could help cure cancer could be lurking in the Berkeley Pit. They like to think that their microbes could be some of the richest “ore” ever mined from the Richest Hill on Earth.