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  • 2018-06-26 12:05:48
  • Article ID: 696609

Separate But Together: Ultrathin Membrane Both Isolates and Couples Living and Non-Living Catalysts

Berkeley Lab innovation paves the way for scaling up biohybrid systems to synthesize fuels, chemicals

  • Credit: Zosia Rostomian/Berkeley Lab

    Visualization of a bacterial cell (top) converting the chemical energy of organic molecules to electrons that are transferred to an inorganic tin oxide catalyst (bottom) via molecular wires embedded in an ultrathin silica layer (middle). The proton conducting silica membrane separates the chemically incompatible biological and inorganic environments thereby enabling electronic coupling of the catalysts on the shortest possible length scale, which is key to biohybrid performance and scalability.

Bioelectrochemical systems combine the best of both worlds – microbial cells with inorganic materials – to make fuels and other energy-rich chemicals with unrivaled efficiency. Yet technical difficulties have kept them impractical anywhere but in a lab. Now researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have developed a novel nanoscale membrane that could address these issues and pave the way for commercial scale-up. 

The nanoscale membrane is embedded with molecular wires that simultaneously chemically separate, yet electrochemically couple, a microbial and an inorganic catalyst on the shortest possible length scale. This new modular architecture, described in a paper published recently in Nature Communications, opens up a large design space for building scalable biohybrid electrochemical systems for a variety of applications, including electricity generation, waste remediation, and resource recovery, in addition to chemical synthesis. 

The work was led by Heinz Frei, a senior scientist in Berkeley Lab’s Molecular Biophysics and Integrated Bioimaging Division (MBIB), and Caroline Ajo-Franklin, a staff scientist with Berkeley Lab’s Molecular Foundry who holds a secondary appointment in MBIB. 

“This advance introduces a completely new architecture for bioelectrochemical systems based on nanoscale integration and provides a path forward to scaling up these systems to a commercially relevant level,” said Frei. “What’s more, it provides an example of how a key design principle inspired by biology is applied for solving a major scientific gap of engineered systems.” 

Biohybrid electrochemical systems employ separate microbial and inorganic catalysts in oxidation-reduction, or redox, reactions, to capitalize on the complementary strengths of each component. Microbes can synthesize complex molecules with high selectivity, while inorganic catalysts are the most efficient energy collectors. Such biohybrid systems are attractive as a sustainable technology to produce fuels and high-value chemicals using renewable energy. 

But, a fundamental challenge in designing biohybrid systems is that the environments that support optimal function of living cells and inorganic materials are chemically incompatible, resulting in toxicity, corrosion, or efficiency-degrading cross reactions. To date, the approach has been to keep the biological and abiotic components physically separated by macroscopic (millimeter to centimeter) distances. However this exacts a high cost in terms of efficiency, due to resistance losses (on the order of 25 percent of the cell voltage) caused by ion transport between the components, making scale-up to commercially relevant levels impractical. 

In electrochemical systems, broadly speaking, an oxidation reaction at the anode and a reduction reaction at the cathode create a driving force for electrons to flow, thereby converting chemical energy into electrical energy or vice-versa. As a proof-of-concept, the researchers electrochemically coupled Shewanella oneidensis, an anaerobic bacterium, to an inorganic catalyst, tin dioxide (SnO2). At 2 nanometers thick, the silica membrane enabled current flow while blocking oxygen and other small molecule transport. 

This study builds on previous work by Frei’s group in which they fabricated a square-inch sized artificial photosystem, in the form of an inorganic core-shell nanotube array, and by Ajo-Franklin’s group in which insight at the molecular level revealed how the outer cell membrane protein interacts with an inorganic oxide surface. 

The three co-first authors on the new paper were Jose Cornejo, a postdoctoral fellow in Ajo-Franklin’s group, and Hua Sheng and Eran Edri, former postdoctoral fellows in Frei’s group, now at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Ben-Gurion University, respectively. 

This work was supported by the Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) Program of Berkeley Lab. The Molecular Foundry is a DOE Office of Science User Facility specializing in nanoscale research. A portion of the work was performed at the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis, a DOE Energy Innovation Hub, supported through the DOE’s Office of Science. 

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Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory addresses the world’s most urgent scientific challenges by advancing sustainable energy, protecting human health, creating new materials, and revealing the origin and fate of the universe. Founded in 1931, Berkeley Lab’s scientific expertise has been recognized with 13 Nobel Prizes. The University of California manages Berkeley Lab for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. For more, visit www.lbl.gov

DOE’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov

- written by Biosciences Area

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UPTON, NY--Theoretical physicists at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE's) Brookhaven National Laboratory and their collaborators have just released the most precise prediction of how subatomic particles called muons--heavy cousins of electrons--"wobble" off their path in a powerful magnetic field.

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X-Ray Experiment Confirms Theoretical Model for Making New Materials

Experiments at the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory have confirmed the predictive power of a new computational approach to materials synthesis. Researchers say that this approach, developed at the DOE's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, could streamline the creation of novel materials for solar cells, batteries and other sustainable technologies.

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Seth Davidovits Wins 2018 Marshall N. Rosenbluth Dissertation Award

Article describes dissertation award won by Seth Davidovits.

DOE Launches New Lab Partnering Service

The U.S. Department of Energy officially launched the Lab Partnering Service (LPS), an on-line, single access point platform for investors, innovators, and institutions to identify, locate, and obtain information from DOE's 17 national laboratories.

Department of Energy Announces $75 Million for High Energy Physics Research

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Thesis Prize Winner's Calculations Characterize Neutrino Interactions

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10 Questions for Steven Cowley, New Director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory

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DOE Awards $100 Million for Energy Frontier Research Centers

U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry announced $100 million in funding for 42 Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRCs) to accelerate the scientific breakthroughs needed to strengthen U.S. economic leadership and energy security.

Argonne welcomes <em>The Martian</em> author Andy Weir

Best-selling science fiction author Andy Weir visited Argonne to give a series of standing-room-only talks, inspiring students and scientists alike.

United States and Italy Sign Agreement to Collaborate on Sterile Neutrino Research

Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Energy and the Italian Embassy, on behalf of the Italian Ministry of Education, Universities and Research, signed an agreement for collaboration on research with the international Short-Baseline Neutrino (SBN) program hosted at DOE's Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.

UW Professor and Clean Energy Institute Director Daniel Schwartz Wins Highest U.S. Award for STEM Mentors

Daniel Schwartz, University of Washington Professor and Clean Energy Institute Director, received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring (PAESMEM) from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) this week.


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Tracking Down Helium-4's Quarks and Gluons

Scientists obtain the first exclusive measurement of deeply virtual Compton scattering of electrons off helium-4, vital to obtaining an unambiguous 3-D view of quarks and gluons within nuclei.

Predicting Magnetic Explosions: From Plasma Current Sheet Disruption to Fast Magnetic Reconnection

Supercomputer simulations and theoretical analysis shed new light on when and how fast reconnection occurs.

Is Nature Exclusively Left Handed? Using Chilled Atoms to Find Out

Elegant techniques of trapping and polarizing atoms open vistas for beta-decay tests of fundamental symmetries, key to understanding the most basic forces and particles constituting our universe.

As Future Batteries, Hybrid Supercapacitors Are Super-Charged

A new supercapacitor could be a competitive alternative to lithium-ion batteries.

Forever Young Catalyst Reduces Diesel Emissions

Atom probe tomography reveals key explanations for stable performance over a cutting-edge diesel-exhaust catalyst's lifetime.

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A nickelate thin film senses electric field changes analogous to the electroreception sensing organ in sharks, which detects the bioelectric fields of prey.

A Bit of Quantum Logic--What Did the Atom Say to the Quantum Dot?

Let's talk! Scientists demonstrate coherent coupling between a quantum dot and a donor atom in silicon, vital for moving information inside quantum computers.

New Tech Uses Isomeric Beams to Study How and Where the Galaxy Makes One of Its Most Common Elements

A new measurement using a beam of aluminum-26 prepared in a metastable state allows researchers to better understand the creation of the elements in our galaxy.

Simulations of Magnetically Confined Plasmas Reveal a Self-Regulating Stabilizing Mechanism

A mysterious mechanism that prevents instabilities may be similar to the process that maintains the Earth's magnetic field.

Seeing All the Colors of the Plasma Wind

2-D velocity imaging helps fusion researchers understand the role of ion winds (aka flows) in the boundary of tokamak plasmas.


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