Biologically Upcycling Metals

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: Sch of Biological Sciences

Abstract

Metals have a finite supply, thus metal scarcity and supply security have become worldwide issues. We have to ensure that we do not drain important resources by prioritizing the desires of the present over the needs of the future.

To solve such a global challenge we need to move to a circular, more sustainable economy where we use the resources we have more wisely. One of the founding principles of a circular economy is that waste is an unused feedstock; that organic and inorganic components can be engineered to fit within a materials cycle, by the design, engineering and re-purposing of waste streams.

In this fellowship I propose to design and engineer bacteria to repurpose our waste streams for us. I plan to use the new tools and techniques provided by advances in biology to engineer a microbe with the ability to upcycle critical metal ions from waste streams into high value nanoparticles.

Certain bacteria have the ability to reduce metal cations and form precipitates of zero-valence, pure metals, as part of their survival mechanism to defend against toxic levels of metal cations. I will adopt the modular approach used in Synthetic Biology alongside iterative design, build and test cycles in order to enhance, manipulate and standardise the biomanufacture of these nanosize precipitates as high value products. With training in life cycle assessment, I will determine the financial benefits for business of adopting biological waste treatment methods with high value resource recovery and I will provide biogenic material to other researchers (academic and industrial) free of charge to encourage user pull for the technology.

Planned Impact

This project will address the important challenge of recovering critical metals for future use and economic gain.

Industrial Impact: The ability to manipulate bacteria in combination with their ability to synthesise nanoparticles could provide access to a host of novel nanoparticles. While I cannot predict their properties at this stage, it is possible that similar properties may arise in particles with lower critical metal composition than those already in use. Combined with a bioprocess for the recovery of critical metals, this would allow the novel biogenic nanoparticles to lower our dependency on critical metals that have prices dictated by countries outside of the UK, and thus ensure resource security and safe guard UK productivity. Industrial impact will be realised through interaction with the synthetic biology IKC, HVM catapult, Scottish IBioIC, KTN and specific companies (e.g. Selex ES, Ingenza, Umicore, GSK, Dyson).

Public and Social Impact: The resource efficiency KTN estimated that world wide mining activities are responsible for 5% of global carbon dioxide emissions, consume limited fossil fuel resources and produce other damaging 'greenhouse gases', recovery of metals would reduce the burden on mining and its environmental impact.

Economic Impact: The industrial impacts described will produce economic benefits to the UK and concurrent social benefits to some of the less affluent areas of the UK, creating employment and reducing healthcare needs, which in turn leads to economic benefits at a national and international level. The recovery of materials from waste streams has obvious economic benefits and the development of new process routes for the production of lower cost and/or higher performance metal nanoparticles may contribute towards wealth generation in a number of possible sectors.

Policy Makers: World politics are determined by the interdependency of countries, most often for resources. There is a dispute, ongoing since 2012, between China and the US (supported by Brazil, Canada, Colombia, European Union, India, Japan, Korea, Norway, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Chinese Taipei, Viet Nam, Argentina, Australia, Indonesia, Turkey, Peru, Russia) over China's restrictions on the export of various forms of rare earth elements; with the full implementation of Word Trading recommendations and rulings currently under contention since May 2015. A technology which eases our reliance upon Chinese REE exports would greatly impact our whole foreign policy.
Additionally there is potential for further impact on policymakers on future technology options in: contaminated waste remediation (e.g. DEFRA & SEPA); eco-friendly/economic production routes for nano-materials (BIS and DEFRA); advancing biotechnology/synthetic biology in the public interest and in the development of a range of high-value products that rely on nanoparticles (BIS, DH and DECC).

Publications

10 25 50
 
Title Landscape Within 
Description The 'Landscape Within' Project is a development of the previous collaborative project 'Instruments of the Afterlife', focusing on the synthetic biology work of the Horsfall lab, and is supported by a Wellcome Trust Arts Award awarded to the artists Burton Nitta. The first piece of artwork resulting from this project has been exhibited as part of Digital Design Weekend, V&A, London, (23 - 25 September 2016); at Tank Gallery, St Saviour's & St Olave's School, London (November - December 2016), and at MU Gallery, Eindhoven (December 2016 - February 2017). Further work and exhibitions include the Old Truman Brewery (London), the Westminster Reference Library (London), TEDx London, Southbank Centre (1 July 2018). 
Type Of Art Artwork 
Year Produced 2017 
Impact Over 7000 people interacted with our piece directly at the V&A. The Digital Design Weekend overall audience was around 20,000. Nearly 100 students have visited and interacted with the piece when exhibited at schools. The artwork has proved to be a teaching aid for a diverse range of subject including: Design, Art, Science, Technology, Philosophy and Religious Studies, and material on the research underway in the Horsfall Lab was also provided. We have no numbers for the gallery in Eindhoven, as yet. 
URL http://burtonnitta.co.uk/LandscapeWithin.html
 
Description BBC Arabic's 4Tech interview 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The 4Tech programme, on BBC Arabic, focuses on technology and the advances it can bring. A research in my lab and I were both interviewed for a feature to describe how we could use bacteria to capture and recover metals from waste.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p2f2NUwKi30
 
Description Bang Goes the Borders activities 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Organised and demonstrated research-related activities for Bang Goes the Borders event in Melrose, Scottish Borders. We discussed our research and its impact with both school pupils and their families.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Cafe Sci 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Presented my research in an publicly-accessible manner to Cockermouth Café Scientifique
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Invited speaker to 'Curious Minds' lecture series 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Third sector organisations
Results and Impact Presented my research in an accessible way to the Perthshire Society of Natural Science. A regional learned society.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Synthetic biology debate panellist 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Invited synthetic biology debate panellist at the Linnean Society of London, hosted by the London Evolutionary Research Network. This was a public debate, organised by a learned society.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description UN Biodiversity Conference 2018 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact The Royal Society, the African Academy of Sciences and the Wellcome Trust organised an event on synthetic biology at the Conference of Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. This event informed conference delegates about synthetic biology as they debate how these technologies should be regulated. The Convention on Biological Diversity's (CBD) has been in discussions on synthetic biology since the 2016 Conference of Parties (COP) and there was another effort at this year's COP to agree proposals that would serve as a moratorium on gene drive research and possibly have wider implications for synthetic biology.
This event at COP was to provide delegates with an opportunity to hear about synthetic biology research and governance in a range of countries and contexts.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018