Siluria Technologies, a Silicon Valley startup is reporting progress with a New York Times story in commercializing a nanoscience-based approach to ethylene production using a virus for the catalyst construction scaffold.

The technique is focused on the ability of a genetically engineered virus to coat itself with a metal that serves as a catalyst for an ethylene producing chemical reaction. The discovery that’s in development is that the virus can create a “tangle of catalyst coated nanowires – a ‘hairball’ they’re saying, of material that provides a huge surface area for chemical reactions to occur. Thus the energy needed to produce the reactions is much reduced.  One would also expect much less catalyst material is used as well.

Erik Scher, a chemist who is one of the company’s researchers explains that with its hairballs of virus-created nanowires coated with unspecified metals, Siluria has been able to create ethylene-producing reactions with its hairballs of virus-created nanowires at temperatures 200 to 300 degrees lower than previously achieved.

Siluria isn’t saying specifically what the catalyst nanowires materials are, but will suggest that magnesium oxide is an example of the kind of metals involved.

The search for more efficient, less expensive approaches for producing ethylene has ongoing for decades, and while some progress has been made no new techniques have yet proved commercially viable. The same is true for a wealth of other catalyst uses such as those using platinum in fuel cells.

If Siluria is successful in commercializing the new catalysts using the new technique, it will announce the arrival of a fresh way of using a new technology that represents a synthesis of molecular biology and industrial chemistry.  The catalyst field could change quite significantly.

Nanoparticles grown on a Virus. Click image for more info.

Siluria’s effort is based on a technique for genetically engineering viruses pioneered by Angela Belcher, at the Biomolecular Materials Group at M.I.T. The technique involves manipulating the genes of a virus, in this case one that usually attacks bacteria, so that it will collect and coat itself with inorganic materials, like metals and even carbon nanotubes.

The viruses can be used as a scaffold to build a dense tangle of metal nanowires, and the potential applications for these engineered materials are remarkably diverse.  Dr. Belcher’s lab is busy with research on more efficient batteries and solar cells, biofuels, hydrogen separation and other fuel cell technologies, CO² sequestration, cancer diagnostic and therapeutic approaches, as well as an effort to create a catalyst that can convert ethanol to hydrogen at room temperature.  A busy lady indeed.

Dr. Belcher’s team published a paper in the journal Science that described using a virus to synthesize nanowires of cobalt oxide at room temperature to improve the capacity of thin, flexible lithium ion batteries. In April the M.I.T. researchers engineered a virus to mimic photosynthesis and produce hydrogen at room temperature by separating water molecules.

Siluria’s researchers say their advance in developing catalysts is the most significant step yet toward commercialization of the bacteriophage technique.  Molecular biologist Dr. Alex Tkachenko, and co-founder of Siluria quoted in a New York Times story said, “We are learning from nature, but going to new places in the periodic table and working with the same tools and techniques to use materials that nature has not worked with. “What is different now is that Angie’s (Dr. Belcher) biosynthetic technology allows us to grow these catalysts in a bottom-up synthetic way into novel shapes – nanowires – which in turn, allow us to create unique surface morphologies.”

The researchers are acknowledging they do not yet have a complete scientific understanding of the surface behavior of their new catalyst. But factually – just building with a virus as a scaffold, getting the catalyst built, having the catalyst stay together and work, is quite an amazing idea that’s a new reality.

The New York Times also talked with and quotes Mehmet Sarikaya, director of the Genetically Engineered Materials Science and Engineering Center at the University of Washington saying, “These are the next generations that will evolve into materials and systems, that we can’t even imagine right now.” Dr. Sarikaya’s lab is working at research in designing materials like smaller proteins and peptides that can mimic biological processes.

Who would have thought the nasty, nasty bug family famed for the common cold could be used to solve major catalytic issues?

It looks like Siluria will get to an ethylene product.  Ethylene is widely used in the manufacturing of plastics, solvents and fibers, and is essential for an array of consumer and industrial products.  It’s a huge market that could really open the door to today’s comparably tiny alternative fuel and fuel use markets. Having a large industrial base would be a superb foundation to solve some matters of intense interest and huge potential.


1 Comment so far

  1. educational grants on November 8, 2010 7:17 AM

    Couldnt agree more with that, very attractive article

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