Montana State University

Former MSU football player hopes his research will benefit Eastern Montana

November 1, 2011 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service


Former MSU football player Elliott Barnhart, now working on his doctorate at MSU, has been researching coal bed methane since he was an undergraduate student in microbiology. This 2009 photo shows him working in Matthew Fields' laboratory. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham).    High-Res Available

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Tel: (406) 994-4571
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BOZEMAN - Talk to the people of Broadus, and you'll hear lots of fond stories about Elliott Barnhart, the native son who played football for Montana State University from 2004 to 2007. Talk to Barnhart, and you'll hear plenty of affection for his home town.

It's no surprise then that Barnhart says he hopes his research as an MSU graduate student will benefit Broadus and the rest of southeast Montana. Barnhart is studying the microorganisms that produce coal bed methane, hoping that his findings will help stabilize the area's economy.

"I have always been looking to work on a project that deals with my home town. It's a great place to grow up," Barnhart said.

Barnhart grew up on a ranch about 10 miles from Broadus, the son of two teachers and brother to two sisters. Living about 80 miles from Miles City, Belle Fourche, S.D. and Gillette, Wyo., he was a stellar student and athlete who played football and whatever sport was in season at Powder River County District High School. He belonged to 4-H. For a time, he was the youngest member of the Broadus pingpong club, joining grown-ups at the tables in the Pastime Theatre.

Barnhart graduated with 27 classmates in 2004, then headed to MSU where he was recruited to play football. Part of the last team to play on grass (He still remembers being a muddy mess after a Bobcat-Grizzly game), he was team captain in 2007 and Offensive Player of the Year in 2006. Among his many honors are ESPN Academic All-American, Montana Athletes in Service, the MSU Award of Excellence and the Torlief Aasheim Community Involvement award.

"When Elliott played for MSU, he was not just the son of Jesse and Connie Barnhart. He was a native son of the Broadus area, and we all claimed him. He's really an incredible person besides being an outstanding athlete and scholar," said Laura Lee Ullrich, board member for the Broadus Chamber of Chamber of Commerce and owner of the Copper Moon where Barnhart still stops for ice cream.

Doug Wilbert, owner of Seabeck Pizza and Subs, said, "Even if he wasn't outstanding at sports, he would still be outstanding in his treatment of other people. Everybody likes him."

Wilbert and his employees, in fact, made a pizza before every MSU home game and sent it to Barnhart for luck. Enough people drive the 310 miles between Broadus and Bozeman that he had no shortage of couriers, Wilbert said.

At the same time as he played football, Barnhart conducted research and published his results. He - like Abbey Potterf of Helena whom he married this summer - was a Montana INBRE scholar. He started studying the production of coal bed methane as an undergraduate student, continued as a master's degree student and now studies it as a doctoral student in microbiology at MSU's Center for Biofilm Engineering.

He wants to know how the microorganisms that live in coal bed seams work together to produce methane, Barnhart said. If he can figure that out, he figures industry should be able to produce more methane and create more jobs.

"The Powder River Basin in southeastern Montana and northeast Wyoming is the largest source of coal mined in the United States, but most of the coal contained in the basin is buried too deeply to be economically accessible. These remote coal beds are dynamic zones where biogeochemical processes work to sustain life," Barnhart wrote in his master's degree thesis.

"Previous work has shown that a direct by-product of these life processes is biogenic methane, the principal component of natural gas that can be used as an energy source for electricity generation, heat and transportation fuel," he continued.

The only known organisms on the planet that are able to produce methane are microorganisms called methanogens classified as Archaea, Barnhart said. However, little is known about the microorganisms responsible for producing methane, coal bed conditions that contribute to methane production and the way microbial communities interact to produce methane. Research so far suggests that microbes called Clostridia are involved with the breakdown of coal, and that Acetobacterium use those by-products to produce metabolites that cross-feed the methane-producing Archaea. Coal and yeast extract each seem to contribute important nutrients in methane-yielding laboratory experiments. More research needs to be done, however.

Ullrich said Broadus is sitting on the cusp of three projects that relate to the development of natural resources, and one involves coal bed methane.

"We all hope some of that will go," Ullrich said.

Doing his part to make it happen, Barnhart designed a sampling tool in collaboration with senior research hydrogeologist John Wheaton and other experts at the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology. Barnhart's uncle - Donald LaPlant of Bozeman - helped build it. His MSU mentors include microbiologist Matthew Fields, civil engineer Al Cunningham and chemical engineer Robin Gerlach, all in the Center for Biofilm Engineering.

Barnhart planned this fall to lower the sampling tool into the coal beds of the Tongue River area of northern Wyoming, about 1 ½ hours from Broadus. While the microbes eat coal and produce methane, they'll migrate into his sampler. After about three months, Barnhart will close the sampler and pull it up to the surface. Then he'll carry it and the microorganisms it contains to the Center for Biofilm Engineering for analysis.

"It's kind of like fishing for microbes," Barnhart commented.

Designing and using the sampler are both challenging, however. Wheaton said the wells that penetrate the coal beds are often hundreds of feet deep and filled with water that ranges from 50 feet to hundreds of feet deep. To lower his sampler down to the coal, Barnhart has to manipulate a single wire without tangling it. He also has to keep the sampler closed until it reaches its destination so it only collects methane-producing microbes and not microorganisms that live in the water.

Wheaton is confident of Barnhart's abilities, though. He described Barnhart as a highly creative researcher, persistent and a typical southeast Montanan who gets things done.

"He just has that, 'Let's go at it' kind of attitude," Wheaton said. "'Let's figure out how to make more gas down there in an environmentally friendly way.'"

Conducting research takes up much of Barnhart's time nowadays, but he said football is still part of his life. He watches Bobcat football games from a seat in the new end zone. On Saturday mornings and throughout the week, he helps coach the Packers - a team of Bozeman fifth and sixth graders who play Midget football.

And visiting his family and friends is important to him, too.

"Eastern Montana, small towns, are hard to beat," Barnhart said.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu