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Biology

Argonne maintains a wide-ranging science and technology portfolio that seeks to address complex challenges in interdisciplinary and innovative ways. Below is a list of all articles, highlights, profiles, projects, and organizations related specifically to biology.

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  • The Microbiome Center

    The Microbiome Center is an intellectual home for researchers across the University of Chicago, the Marine Biological Laboratory, and Argonne National Laboratory to advance understanding of the identity and function of microbes.
  • A low-cost process that accelerates biological methane production rates at least fivefold
    Intellectual Property Available to License

    US Patent 8,247,009
    • Enhanced Renewable Methane Production System Benefits Wastewater Treatment Plants, Farms, and Landfills (ANL-IN-05-079)

    The Invention 

    Process schematic of Argonne’s Enhanced Renewable Methane Production System.

    Argonne’s Enhanced Renewable Methane Production System provides a low-cost process that accelerates biological methane production rates at least fivefold. The innovative system addresses one of the largest barriers to expanding the use of renewable methane — the naturally slow rate of production. To overcome this challenge, Argonne researchers examined the natural biology of methane production, the natural processes for carbon dioxide (CO2) sequestration, and the environmental quality of the water found in coal bed methane wells. Their research led to the novel, low-cost treatment that enhances the heating value of biogas, delivering a gas that is close to pipeline quality. This system offers an improved means of producing biological methane at wastewater treatment plants, farms, and landfills. 

    Argonne’s system also simultaneously sequesters the CO2 produced during the process by reacting with magnesium and calcium silicate rocks. This innovation links the biological conversion (renewable carbon source being converted to methane and carbon dioxide) to a geochemical mechanism (producing solid carbonate-enriched minerals), thus eliminating CO2 emissions. 

    Argonne’s Enhanced Renewable Methane Production System can accelerate biological methane production rates at least fivefold.

    Benefits 

    • Produces near-pipeline-quality methane 
    • Enables simultaneous carbon dioxide sequestration

    Applications and Industries

    • Wastewater treatment plants 
    • Recovery of methane from manure and agricultural processing 
    • Recovery of methane from food processing wastes 
    • Methane from other carbonaceous feedstock. 

    Developmental Stage 

    Reduction to practice testing is complete. Researchers are now working on prototype-scale testing with field testing to follow. 

  • Transportation fuel and organic solid fertilizer from anaerobic digestion of wastewater solids and other organic wastes
    Intellectual Property Available to License
    US Patent 9,994,870
    • Method for generating methane from a carbonaceous feedstock

    The Innovation

    The biogas made from biosolids generated at wastewater treatment plants in the anaerobic digesters (ADs) contains high amounts of CO2 and hydrogen sulfide (H2S), and other gases as impurities that reduce its utility. H2S is corrosive at very low levels. In order to make biogas usable as a transportation fuel, its methane content must be enriched to the level found in natural gas by depleting CO2; and H2S levels must also be reduced. Researchers have made various previous attempts to separate CO2 in biogas production systems and thus enrich the methane content in biogas. However, among the disadvantages of this approach are that the H2S must be removed separately. Most of these methods are not economical, because post-production processing of biogas is required.

    Previously, researchers at Argonne National Laboratory had developed processes for in situ treatment of ADs to enrich the methane content in biogas to the levels found in natural gas. First, the Argonne researchers used pulverized rocks rich in CaCO3 and MgCO3 that sequesters the CO2 (background patent 8,247,009). The pulverized rocks were placed in the AD in removable mesh buckets. However, such rocks must be mined, pulverized, and transported, each of which adds costs.

    Argonne researchers next used a locally available agricultural by-product, biochar (charcoal), in the ADs and achieved reduction of both CO2 and H2S, with in situ sequestration of carbon, and methane enrichment of biogas to the pipeline-quality level of natural gas with >85% methane. Biochars from various sources perform similarly in methane enrichment in biogas. It is possible that some geographic regions may have biochar sources that may be functionally equivalent to the biochars used in Argonne studies and industrial-scale pilot testing.

    The biochar used thus far by Argonne is rich in divalent and monovalent cations, calcium, potassium, and magnesium, which has increased these cations in the digestate that can be used as organic solid fertilizer—leading to a significant revenue stream. Chemical analysis reveals that organic solid fertilizer is rich in nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, and sulphur.

    Developmental Stage

    Pilot-scale process evaluation performed at a third-party site.

    Availability/Commercial Readiness

    Ready for development under a research partnership

  • Efficient biofuels for the next generation
    Intellectual Property Available to License

    US Patent Application 2011/0302830
    • Biofuels from Photosynthetic Bacteria (ANL-IN-09-001)

    The Innovation

    Production of fuels from renewable energy sources can address many important national and global issues. Rising energy costs and the uncertainty in supply of crude oil have the ability to affect national security. Rising CO2 levels resulting from the world’s thirst for liquid fuels pose substantial climate and ecosystem threats.

    Photosynthetic bacteria can be a renewable source of fuel molecules. The photosynthetic machinery in these highly pigmented bacteria includes cofactors (chlorophyll, carotenoids, quinones, etc.) that are anchored in the proteins by long hydrocarbon tails. These anchors can be used directly as fuel substitutes once they are separated from the bacteria that produced them. They are more compatible with modern engines than are molecules that comprise current-day biodiesel formulations (sourced from plant fatty acids). In this alternative approach to efficient production of next-generation biofuels, Argonne researchers have engineered photosynthetic bacteria and developed specific Rhodobacter strains and processes that mass produce the fuel molecules (such as phytol, shorter isoprenols, and other atypical alcohols) and export them from the cell to be separated and used directly as fuel in compression-ignited (diesel) engines. The molecules require no further chemical upgrading for use.

    Schematic of the overall approach including the method for production of biofuels

    The Rhodobacter species of photosynthetic bacteria are facultative and are frequently known to bloom in animal waste lagoons in the summer in the Midwest. This versatility, as such, can be exploited for adaptation of their growth to whatever feedstocks are prevalent in local areas. More than 115 engineered Rhodobacter strains are under evaluation at Argonne, and a variety of screening methodologies has allowed selection of strains that are relatively omnivorous with respect to the nutrient and energy requirements used for conversion processes (e.g., the use of light). Depending upon the type of separations process used downstream for recovery, fuel molecules can be secreted into the fermentation broth or internalized as storage reserves for later harvest and extraction from bacterial cell pellets.

    Argonne is pursuing industrial partnerships to scale and commercialize this technology.

    The Benefits

    The Rhodobacter strains developed at Argonne have the following benefits over traditional approaches:

    • Flexibility: the engineered bacteria produce biofuels using a variety of growth modes (including photosynthetic) and can thrive on carbon sources available in most areas. 
    • Versatility: the bacteria can grow on waste materials (carbon and water) not currently used for food or as feedstocks for other processes. 
    • Simplicity: Direct production is realized by single-celled organisms exporting product into the culture medium. 
    • Compatibility: the biofuels produced can be consumed as is” or mixed with other fuels without the need for refining (cracking) or distillation. 
    • Transportability: Rhodobacter fuel bioreactors can be set up at any (including those seemingly most remote) location(s) for production of liquid fuel or for conversion in diesel generators to produce electricity on demand. 
    • Sustainability: 3070% of waste from the new process consists of lipids, which can be modified to produce conventional biodiesel. 

    Application and Industries

    • Transportation sector
    • Waste-to-energy facilities
    • Remote operations requiring liquid fuels or electricity

    Developmental Stage

    Experimental-scale production of biofuel achieved; ready for scale up.

    Availability/Commercial Readiness

    Available for licensing and scale up or further development to focus on production of specialized fuels or chemicals.

  • A novel, rugged, and economic diagnostic and sensor platform technology
    Intellectual Property Available to License
    US Patent 7,639,359
    • Magneto-optic biosensor using bio-functionalized magnetized nanoparticles

    The Innovation

    Magnetic nanoparticles are leading to the development of more sensitive, rapid, and cost-effective biological sensors. These sensors can be used for a variety of applications, including in the detection of medical conditions and bioterrorist threats.

    Recently, there has been an increased interest in magnetic nanoparticles with biologically relevant ligand coatings. These nanoparticles can have many biological and medical uses, including targeted drug delivery, magnetic separation, hyperthermal treatment, and biosensors.

    Researchers at Argonne National Laboratory have developed a magnetic-optic biosensor that uses biofunctionalized magnetic nanoparticles. The long-range interaction between magnetic nanoparticles and an external magnetic field enables manipulation and sensitive detection of those particles for improved biosensors. The process involves applying a time-varying external magnetic field and a linearly polarized incident laser light to a suspension of magnetic nanoparticles. The resulting transmitted or reflected light and its polarization will be recorded with a suitable photodetector. This allows for the determination of the Brownian relaxation time, which may indicate hydro-dynamic radius changes upon chemical binding of the target to the magnetic nanoparticles.

    Argonne’s magneto-optic biosensor can be used to measure either a material’s local rheological properties (i.e., properties related to flow or deformation), given that the Brownian relaxation time is proportional to the viscosity, or chemical binding events, which result in an increase of the hydrodynamic radius.

    The latter can be used as a research tool for investigating binding kinetics in real time or as a custom-designed sensor for specific target molecules. By optimizing the magnetic nanoparticle with respect to the desired target molecule, this approach can be adapted to a wide variety of targets, such as specific molecules, proteins, and disease markers. At the same time, the ability to investigate reaction kinetics directly enables the examination of how different chemical/biological environments influence the binding process.

    The Benefits

    The Argonne-developed biosensor is unique because of its ability to enable more rapid and sensitive detection. Magnetic modulation of ferromagnetic particles in liquid can increase the signal sensitivity by several orders of magnitude. In addition to improvements in speed and sensitivity, the biosensor is potentially more cost effective than existing technologies. lts simplicity also allows relatively untrained personnel to operate the sensor.

    The shelf-life of magnetic nanoparticles can essentially be infinite, which is beneficial compared to other biosensing methods that use fluorescent and radioactive materials. The magnetooptic biosensor displays many other advantages, including the simplicity of mix-and-measure assembly, the ability to obtain information beyond the biochemical affinity, and straightforward integration with microfluidics.

    Biosensors have many potential commercial applications. For bioterrorism and environmental needs, they can be used for remote sensing of airborne bacteria and detecting water toxins and contaminants. ln the medical field, biosensors have many uses, including drug discovery and evaluation and glucose monitoring in diabetes patients.

    The possibilities increase with Argonne’s improved biosensor. This technology can be used to detect and monitor DNA hybridization, as well as DNA/RNA-protein, protein-protein, and protein-small molecule interactions. With these capabilities, the biosensor could be attractive for research purposes and diagnostic applications, such as detecting disease-causing bacteria and viruses. The potential also exists for in vitro applications, such as the detection of local temperature and viscoelasticity within inter-cellular environments or possibly even in vivo immunoassays.

    Publication Information

    United States Patents 7,639,359 Chung S.H., Grimsditch M., Hoffmann A., Bader S.D., Xie J, Peng S., Sun S., 2008, Magneto-optic measurement of Brownian relaxation of magnetic nanoparticles, Journal of Magnetism and Magnetic Materials 320(3-4): 9195.

    Developmental Stage

    Prototype device demonstrating the platform was built and tested in laboratory conditions.

    Availability/Commercial Readiness

    Ready for development under a research partnership and licensing.