Nov 3, 2017 | By Julia

Researchers at Montana State University (MSU) are investigating an unlikely source for new 3D printer material: the methane-producing microbes in Yellowstone National Park. Recently awarded $1.8 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF) ‒ in addition to a hefty $6 million secured back in August ‒ the innovative research project will study the little-understood methane-producing microbes that live deep underground Yellowstone, and aim to leverage these microorganisms in the production of plastics and other commercial materials. One such application, the team hopes, may be a new type of “feedstock” or filament for 3D printers.

For those who need a refresher, methane conversion has been an increasingly important topic of study in recent years; the natural gas is a potent greenhouse agent, and a massive contributor to climate change. Large amounts of methane are emitted by natural wetlands, agriculture, landfills, and oil and coal extraction, yet relatively little is known about how exactly methane is produced and converted underground. Environments that were once thought uninhabitable are now considered hotbeds for the methane-converting microbes known as methanotrophs, which is precisely where the research team’s interest lies.

“It’s not well understood what organisms are involved in the conversion of methane in these environments,” says Robin Gerlach, principal investigator and professor in MSU’s Chemical and Biological Engineering Department. Recent scientific discoveries helped pique the team’s interest: researchers at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology (SDSMT) located methanotrophs in the Sanford Underground Research Facility ‒ a former mine ‒ while MSU scientists pursued the methane found in steam from Yellowstone’s hot pools.

Known as BuG ReMeDEE (pronounced ‘bug remedy’), the project features collaborators from MSU, the University of Oklahoma, and SDSMT. A short form for ‘Building Genome-to-Phenome Infrastructure for Regulating Methane in Deep and Extreme Environments’, the project title refers precisely to those newly discovered methane-producing microbes in the old South Dakota gold mine, and in the thermal features of Yellowstone National Park.

“Yellowstone is a huge reservoir of microbial capabilities that we’ve barely explored,” explains Brent Peyton, director of MSU’s Thermal Biology Institute and a member of the research team. “We’re looking for microbes that are just barely being discovered.”

The collaboration will aim to develop models for explaining the microbes’ metabolism, as well as exploring ways to optimize the microorganisms’ ability to produce organic compounds, which could then be used to make plastics, biofuels, and other commercial products. Assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering Connie Chang will make use of microfluidics technology to manipulate microscopic liquid drops injected with individual methanotrophs. Through networks of minute channels etched into glass plates, Chang can manipulate the microbes with astonishing precision. Professor Jim Wilking, on the other hand, plans to use these drops as 3D printing material.

Yet before various applications can be proposed, the team first has to develop prototypes of engineered biofilms that can convert methane into the desired materials. While MSU researchers have experience harnessing biofilm technology for solutions such as sealing cracks in oil and gas well casings, actually building a biofilm from scratch is cutting-edge engineering. So far, the team is excited about what they can collectively achieve. “I’m really excited about the collaboration,” says Chang. “We each have different backgrounds and techniques.”

The recent NSF grant was awarded through the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, under the NSF’s investment strategy of Research Infrastructure Improvement.



Posted in 3D Printing Materials



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