BIOMEM project awarded €3mn Pathfinder grant for novel biomembranes

BIOMEM, a consortium led by Danish biotech company Aquaporin, with research led by Aston University’s Dr Alan Goddard, has won a €3 million grant from the European Innovation Council (EIC) Pathfinder programme to develop a novel bioinspired membrane to selectively extract compounds from water.

Image courtesy of Aston University.

Current water filtration technologies require high pressure and energy inputs and are not selective about the molecules they filter. BIOmimetic selective extraction MEMbranes (BIOMEM) will be able to exclusively extract single compounds from aqueous solutions and will use 50–75% less energy than current state-of-the-art nanofiltration technologies.

The membranes have the potential to be used in various sectors including wastewater treatment, for example to remove particular pollutants such as phosphate, and in biotechnology to extract valuable products from fermentation broth, such as vitamins and pharmaceuticals. The BIOMEM researchers believe that their technology will be game-changing for bioprocessing industries, as the membranes will greatly reduce processing costs.

BIOMEM represents the first significant award to the newly founded Aston Institute for Membrane Excellence (AIME), combining the areas of membrane protein biochemistry and polymer science to create an innovative solution to global challenges.

The word ‘biomimetic’ means mimicking biology, and the new membranes will mimic natural cell membranes. Cell membranes have specific transport proteins embedded within them to move particular substances, such as metal ions and sugars, in and out of the cell. The BIOMEM consortium will take transport proteins from biological cell membranes and embed them in more robust, industrial plastic membranes to create extremely selective separation membranes.

Dr Goddard and the interdisciplinary team at Aston University, which also includes Dr Alice Rothnie and Professor Roslyn Bill from the School of Biosciences, and Dr Matthew Derry, Professor Brian Tighe and Professor Paul Topham from the School of Engineering and Physical Sciences, will generate and test novel polymers capable of extracting transport proteins and their stabilising lipids from biological membranes, whilst retaining their activity.

Membrane transport proteins are typically unstable and therefore difficult to isolate and study. With the stabilised, extracted proteins from Aston University, the rest of the consortium will be able to assemble the new bioinspired membranes and characterise them to understand their organisation and function. This will allow them to design and optimise membranes for custom target compounds.

The consortium will test the membranes they produce in proof-of-concept experiments to extract complex, high-value food ingredients from fermentation broth and phosphate from wastewater. Eventually, the partners aim to produce ‘plug and play’ bespoke selective membranes.

The BIOMEM consortium also includes the French National Centre for Scientific Research (Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS)), Copenhagen University in Denmark, Tampere University in Finland and dsm-firmenich, a global science and innovation leader in nutrition, health and beauty.

Dr Goddard said: “This is an incredibly exciting opportunity to really redefine how industrial separation membranes are made and to create a platform system that can be used across a whole range of sectors. Our consortium has representatives from all stages of membrane manufacturing, including industrial partners, to ensure we focus on real-world relevance and application.”

Torsten Bak, senior vice president of the Aquaporin Deep Tech Center and leader of the project at Aquaporin, said: “We are thrilled to announce the BIOMEM project and look forward to working with the consortium. The successful funding from the Pathfinder programme now positions us to commence a long-anticipated project to develop a novel biomembrane with unique properties that have the potential to optimise various industries.”