UL Researchers Generate Electricity from Low-Cost Biomaterial

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Mobile phone speakers and motion detectors in cars and video games may soon be powered by electricity generated from low cost and sustainable biomaterials, according to research carried out at University of Limerick (UL), Ireland. Scientists at UL’s Bernal Institute have discovered that the biomolecule glycine, when tapped or squeezed, can generate enough electricity to power electrical devices in an economically viable and environmentally sustainable way. The research was published on Dec. 4, 2017 in leading international journal Nature Materials. Pictured is Sarah Guerin, Science Foundation Ireland funded post-graduate researcher at the Bernal Institute, UL.

Mobile phone speakers and motion detectors in cars and video games may soon be powered by electricity generated from low cost and sustainable biomaterials, according to research carried out at University of Limerick (UL), Ireland.

Scientists at UL’s Bernal Institute have discovered that the biomolecule glycine, when tapped or squeezed, can generate enough electricity to power electrical devices in an economically viable and environmentally sustainable way. The research was published on December 4, 2017 in leading international journal Nature Materials.

Glycine is the simplest amino acid. It occurs in practically all agro and forestry residues. It can be produced at less than one per cent of the cost of currently used piezoelectric materials.

Piezoelectric materials generate electricity in response to pressure, and vice versa. They are widely used in cars, phones, and remote controls for games consoles. Unlike glycine, these materials are normally synthetic and often contain toxic elements such as lead or lithium.

“It is really exciting that such a tiny molecule can generate so much electricity,” said lead author Sarah Guerin, a post-graduate student at the Department of Physics and the Bernal Institute, UL.

“We used computer models to predict the electrical response of a wide range of crystals and the glycine number was off the charts. We then grew long, narrow crystals of glycine in alcohol,” she added, “and we produced electricity just by tapping them.”

Sarah’s PhD supervisor Dr Damien Thompson, adds, “The predictive models we are developing can save years of trial-and-error lab work. The modelling data tells us what kinds of crystals to grow and where best to cut and press those crystals to generate electricity.”

Co-author and Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) Centre for Medical Devices (CURAM) investigator Professor Tofail Syed said: “We also have a pending patent that translates our findings to applications such as biodegradable power generation, devices detecting diseases inside of the body and physiologically controlled drug pumps”.

Previously, Bernal scientists discovered piezoelectricity in the globular protein lysozyme, found in tears, egg-white and saliva, and hydroxyapatite, a component of bone.

“The current finding extends the technology towards pragmatic, low-cost, renewable sources for electricity generation,” according to Professor Luuk van der Wielen, Director of the Bernal Institute and Bernal Professor of Biosystems Engineering and Design. “The finding translates the earlier Bernal scientists’ world-leading contribution in bio-piezoelectricity towards a large-scale and affordable application potential.”

Professor Edmond Magner, Dean of Science and Engineering at UL, said: “UL’s Department of Physics and Bernal Institute researchers continue to pioneer the use of biological crystals for electrical applications. This work places them at the forefront in the development of bio-piezoelectric devices”.

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The full paper, Control of Piezoelectricity in Amino Acids by Supramolecular Packing, by Sarah Guerin, Aimee Stapleton, Drahomir Chovan, Rabah Mouras, Matthew Gleeson, Cian McKeown, Mohamed R Noor, Christophe Silien, Fernando M F Rhen, Andrei L Kholkin, Ning Liu, Tewfik Soulimane, Syed A M Tofail, and Damien Thompson, is published in Nature Materials, December 4, 2017.

For further information, photographs or to arrange an interview, please contact:

Nicola Corless
Communications Officer
University of Limerick
Nicola.Corless@ul.ie

Notes to the editor:

Funding:

This publication has emanated from research conducted with the financial support of Science Foundation Ireland (SFI), and is co-funded under the European Regional Development Fund under Grant Number 13/RC/2073.

About Sarah Guerin:

Sarah Guerin, from Tralee, County Kerry, Ireland, is a final year PhD student at the University of Limerick. Her research uses a combination of quantum mechanical calculations and advanced characterisation techniques to develop the next generation of single crystal piezoelectric technologies. In August 2015 she graduated with a first class honours degree in Applied Physics. She completed her undergraduate internship at Analog Devices International, going on to complete her undergraduate thesis with the company.

About University of Limerick:

University of Limerick, Ireland, with more than 14,000 students and 1,400 staff is an energetic and enterprising institution with a proud record of innovation and excellence in education, research and scholarship. The dynamic, entrepreneurial and pioneering values which drive UL’s mission and strategy ensures that it capitalises on local, national and international engagement and connectivity.

About the Bernal Institute:

The Bernal Institute at the University of Limerick was established in 2016 and is comprised of more than 300 researchers in applied science and engineering. The Institute’s research focuses on advanced materials, manufacturing and process engineering. The Institute is housed in 20,000 square meters of high-quality, multi-purpose research space and has received over €100 million in capital investment. The Bernal Institute is named after John Desmond Bernal, who was born in Nenagh, County Tipperary, Ireland and was one of the most influential scientists of the 20th Century. He pioneered the use of X-ray crystallography in molecular biology.

About Curam:

Curam is a Science Foundation Ireland academic-industry-clinical ‘super centre’ designing the next generation of ‘smart’ medical devices. With six academic partners and more than 24 industry partners, Curam is establishing a global hub of research expertise in medical device technology. Curam’s innovative approach incorporates biomaterials and drug delivery, tissue engineering and regenerative medicine, glycoscience and device design to enhance, develop and validate both traditional and new combinational medical devices from molecular design to device manufacturing.

 

By Sean Curtin, Truemedia

Irish Scientists Discover Method to Produce Electricity from Tears

A team of scientists at University of Limerick has discovered that applying pressure to a protein found in egg whites and tears can generate electricity. The researchers from the Bernal Institute observed that crystals of lysozyme, a model protein that is abundant in egg whites of birds as well as in the tears, saliva and milk of mammals can generate electricity when pressed. Their report was published on October 2 in the journal, Applied Physics Letters.

A team of scientists at University of Limerick has discovered that applying pressure to a protein found in egg whites and tears can generate electricity. The full paper, The Direct Piezoelectric Effect in the Globular Protein Lysozyme, by Aimee Stapleton, Mohamed R Noor, John Sweeney, Vincent Casey, Andrei Kholkin, Christophe Silien, Abbasi A. Gandhi, Tewfik Soulimane and Syed A M Tofail, is published in Applied Physics Letters.

The ability to generate electricity by applying pressure, known as direct piezoelectricity, is a property of materials such as quartz that can convert mechanical energy into electrical energy and vice versa. Such materials are used in a variety of applications ranging from resonators and vibrators in mobile phones to deep ocean sonars and ultrasound imaging. Bone, tendon and wood are long known to possess piezoelectricity.

“While piezoelectricity is used all around us, the capacity to generate electricity from this particular protein had not been explored. The extent of the piezoelectricity in lysozyme crystals is significant. It is of the same order of magnitude found in quartz. However, because it is a biological material, it is non toxic so it could have many innovative applications such as electroactive anti-microbial coatings for medical implants,” explained Aimee Stapleton, the lead author and an Irish Research Council EMBARK Postgraduate Fellow in the Department of Physics and Bernal Institute of UL.

Crystals of lysozyme are easy to make from natural sources. “The high precision structure of lysozyme crystals has been known since 1965,” said structural biologist at UL and co-author Professor Tewfik Soulimane.
“In fact, it is the second protein structure and the first enzyme structure that was ever solved,” he added, “but we are the first to use these crystals to show the evidence of piezoelectricity”.

According to team leader Professor Tofail Syed of UL’s Department of Physics, “Crystals are the gold-standard for measuring piezoelectricity in non-biological materials. Our team has shown that the same approach can be taken in understanding this effect in biology. This is a new approach as scientists so far have tried to understand piezoelectricity in biology using complex hierarchical structures such as tissues, cells or polypeptides rather than investigating simpler fundamental building blocks”.

Professor Luuk van der Wielen, Director of Bernal Institute and Bernal Professor of Biosystems Engineering and Design expressed his delight at this breakthrough by UL scientists.

The discovery may have wide reaching applications and could lead to further research in the area of energy harvesting and flexible electronics for biomedical devices. Future applications of the discovery may include controlling the release of drugs in the body by using lysozyme as a physiologically mediated pump that scavenges energy from its surroundings. Being naturally biocompatible and piezoelectric, lysozyme may present an alternative to conventional piezoelectric energy harvesters, many of which contain toxic elements such as lead.

“The €109-million Bernal Institute has the ambition to impact the world on the basis of top science in an increasingly international context. The impact of this discovery in the field of biological piezoelectricity will be huge and Bernal scientists are leading from the front the progress in this field,” he said.

The full paper, The Direct Piezoelectric Effect in the Globular Protein Lysozyme, by Aimee Stapleton, Mohamed R Noor, John Sweeney, Vincent Casey, Andrei Kholkin, Christophe Silien, Abbasi A. Gandhi, Tewfik Soulimane and Syed A M Tofail, is published in Applied Physics Letters.

 

For further information, additional photographs or to arrange an interview, please contact Nicola Corless, Communications Officer at Nicola.Corless@ul.ie or on +353 86 141 4640.

At UL, One-of-a-kind multi-million-Euro microscope unveiled

A multi-million-Euro microscope funded by Science Foundation Ireland and the University of Limerick (UL), was unveiled today at UL’s Bernal Institute. The new microscope will allow researchers to study materials at an atomic level in real-world conditions and is one of only a handful of microscopes with these capabilities worldwide.

The Titan Themis is a double-corrected, monochromated Transmission Electron Microscope (TEM) and is valued at €6 million. A further €3 million worth of specialist equipment has been added to the UL machine including in-situ microscopy and ultra-fast and sensitive detectors, as well as environmental holders, which allow for the behaviour of materials to be studied in real-time across a range of environments.

“The holders for the specimens are especially interesting. For the past 70 years, we have been observing materials in a vacuum and not in the conditions these materials are used on a day-to-day basis. The holders allow us to introduce specific triggers into samples allowing us to see how these materials, at an atomic level, interact with the world, for example, how they react when exposed to different gases, liquids, heating, biasing or cryo-cooling,” explained Dr Andrew Stewart of UL’s Department of Physics and the Bernal Institute.

“This TEM is also equipped with a detector which allows us to capture the atoms’ reactions at a rate of 1,600 frames per second. Up until now, we have only been able to detect 10 frames per second so effectively this new camera will allow us to record the processes at a sub-millisecond timescale and capture that information as it unfolds. It is the difference between seeing time-stamped stills of a process and seeing a movie of what is happening at an atomic level. It is the combination of all of these features, that makes this microscope quite unique,” he continued.

The microscope could be used in the drug discovery and design processes in the pharmaceutical industry; medical device development; in the electronics industry; and, in materials characterisation in the nuclear and aviation industries.

President of UL, Dr Des Fitzgerald, officially unveiled the microscope at a ceremony in the Bernal Institute on Wednesday.

“At a total value of €9 million, the acquisition of the Titan Themis marks the biggest single investment in a piece of instrumentation by University of Limerick. TEM is a fast evolving area of research that is moving towards automation and structural dynamics at shorter timescales – these new facilities will place UL at the forefront of this directional change, and will create a generation of postgraduate students who will have world-class skills in electron microscopy. This, in turn, will strengthen UL’s international academic profile by attracting overseas students and programmes,” Dr Fitzgerald stated.

The equipment is funded by University of Limerick in partnership with Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) through its Infrastructure and Opportunistic funds and has already enabled funding to be received from FET Open via Horizon2020.

World-class research centre opens at University of Limerick

Investment of €86 million attracts leading scientists into UL’s Bernal Institute

Prof Don Barry:  Bernal Institute at UL is academia, government and industry all working together to create a “gamechanger”. Photograph: Sean Curtin Press 22
Prof Don Barry: Bernal Institute at UL is academia, government and industry all working together to create a “gamechanger”. Photograph: Sean Curtin Press 22

New drugs, better batteries and new materials are just a few of the discoveries expected to emerge from a €86 million investment in a new research institute at the University of Limerick.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny was on hand on Monday to formally open the Bernal Institute, a huge multipurpose research space that will bring a number of existing institutes into a single location.

The Bernal Institute will provide the space but it will also have the personnel to advance Ireland’s research efforts.

The institute will house more than 260 researchers, including six world experts who already hold Bernal research chairs and who lead teams making discoveries in crystal engineering, fluid mechanics and microscopy among other disciplines.

These chairs between them have already attracted an additional €25 million in research funding and 70 companies have already formed partnerships with scientists who will be based at the institute.

Pharmaceuticals and materials

“The institute will ensure that Ireland stays at the cutting edge of research and innovation,” the Taoiseach said at the formal opening. Advances in pharmaceuticals, medicines and materials will help tackle great world challenges facing society, he said.

The Bernal Institute was a great example of academia, government and industry all working together to create a “gamechanger”, said UL president Prof Don Barry.

Funding for the institute has come from Science Foundation Ireland, Enterprise Ireland and the Higher Education Authority.

It is named for John Desmond Bernal, an influential scientist who was born in Nenagh, Co Tipperary. He was a pioneer in the use of X-ray crystallography to study structures in molecular biology.