Associate Professor of Chemistry Tim Elgren's interest in using silica-based materials to stabilize enzymes began in 1998 when he and a student developed a project funded by the Emerson Summer Fellowship Program. That research has evolved into the first patent disclosure for a scientific discovery at Hamilton.
The patent is based on a paper Elgren recently published in the American Chemical Society journal Nano Letters titled "Immobilization of Active Hydrogenases by Encapsulation in Polymeric Porous Gels." The work was completed while Elgren was on sabbatical last year at Montana State University in Bozeman.
The Nano Letters publication and patent disclosure report the successful incorporation of hydrogenases into glass-like materials and the demonstration that the enzymes remain fully active in this environment. Hydrogenases are capable of converting protons and electrons into hydrogen gas. They are also capable of the reverse reaction, transforming hydrogen gas into electrons. This reaction constitutes the catalytic core of a hydrogen fuel cell.
"This is the first example of stabilizing a hydrogenase enzyme in a solid material that still enables it to function," Elgren explained. "The ability to stabilize active hydrogenase in this material is the first step toward harnessing the power of the enzyme for this purpose."
The next phase of Elgren's research will be to effectively couple the material to a conducting electrode to more efficiently deliver electrons for hydrogen production or to harvest electrons to produce an electrical current. Although the full patent application will be filed on this project later this year, Elgren cautioned that his research represents only the preliminary steps required for in vitro hydrogen production or oxidation catalyzed by an enzyme.
In addition to achieving a scientific breakthrough in advancing this developing technology, Elgren has had the opportunity to involve his students from initial studies focused on the reaction mechanism of the encapsulated enzyme to the development of functional bio-materials.
"Synthesizing and studying these bio-materials have been a gold mine for us in terms of providing a wealth of new research opportunities for students in my lab," Elgren said. "The initial Emerson Award allowed me to explore an entirely new field, which is now the primary focus of my research activities."
Funding for these projects and his recent sabbatical has been provided in part by grants from the Petroleum Research Fund of the American Chemical Society, the Research Corporation and the National Science Foundation.
Elgren joined the Hamilton faculty in 1993. He was the first recipient of the John R. Hatch Excellence in Teaching Award in 1998 and has recently returned to full-time teaching after a four-year term as associate dean of the faculty. He served this past year as the president of the Council on Undergraduate Research and is serving a final year on its executive board.