The molecular mechanisms plants use for membrane separation provide a sophisticated design prototype for resource harvesting biotechnologies
All cellular life must exchange solutes with their surrounds in order to maintain the functions required for essential biological processes,
Plants obtain water and nutrients from the soil solution by taking up both desired and undesired elements. There are a multitude of strategies working in combination to sort, redistribute and sequester elements, however membrane separation functions are specifically used to distinguish between different molecules with shared chemical properties.
Membrane separation mobilises the agency of transmembrane protein ‘gatekeepers’ which control the movement of particles or solutes across the membranous barrier.
Many of these membrane proteins have structural features or ‘molecular switches’ which living cells use to alter their permeability to different substrates. In so doing, cells are able to effectively select for certain target elements.
The need for harvesting of valuable resources from liquid waste is ubiquitous across diverse industries. Examples of target elements lost in industrial processes include ammonium, borate, cobalt, nickel, phosphorus, lithium, potassium, sodium and urea.
Existing methods for purifying precious metals, minerals and nutrients from mixed solutions require strong toxic acids and ion exchange processes, and are frequently inefficient in water and energy use.
The MTE approach transfers knowledge from nature to deliver a practical membrane design that offers the following advantages over existing systems:
Value-add: Allows for separation of valuable elements or molecules in addition to clean water.
Adaptable: The components can be engineered for the segregation of many different elements or molecules depending on the desired end-use of the separation system, and the desired output composition.
Modular: Units specific to the separation of valuable elements and molecules can be stacked or combined to enable the separation of multiple target solutes from complex mixtures.
Fluid solutions borrowed from nature
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The research team thank ANU for supporting the MTE initiative, which involves translating research outcomes from the Byrt lab at ANU into solutions for future resource management