Kehoe partnered with Jaipal Singh, director of the Indiana Center for Biomedical Innovation at IUPUI, and Peter Schubert, a professor and the director of the Richard G. Lugar Center of Renewable Energy at IUPUI, for guidance on how to direct his research with an eye toward commercial enterprise.
Singh was drawn to Kehoe’s idea, and the two now are collaborating on grant funding options.
“Our mission is to create therapies for patients by taking early stage research at IU’s School of Medicine and translate that to patient care,” Singh said of the Indiana Center for Biomedical Innovation, which serves as a business incubator that taps into the expertise of numerous medical and pharmaceutical companies. “Kehoe’s system was interesting to us as it could be utilized for making pharmaceuticals. And it’s a good synergy in that he has technology, and we can extend the testing using various assays and systems we already have in place.”
Businesses work with the center, Singh says, because they are looking not only for innovations, but also cost containment and sustainability – and many are open to investing in fledgling, but promising, projects.
Schubert of the Lugar Center bridges the academic world and industry. He says the cyanobacteria project fits well with his own research into using bacteria to clean carbon dioxide from smokestacks. And, Kehoe said, Schubert contributed to the third part of the “win-win-win” by asking Kehoe what would happen to the “sludge,” the biomass left after a new chemical is extracted from the cyanobacteria.
“My personal research has sought to convert dead biomass to energy,” Schubert says, “so I saw a dangling opportunity when David described this project: What will you do with the dead cyanobacteria after it produces your chemicals?”
The answer is to convert the sludge into energy. Schubert says that through gasification, sludge can produce electricity to help run the operation, so that the whole process would become nearly self-sufficient. Even the very last bit, the “bio char,” a chemically non-reactive substance, can be used as soil augmentation and to help retain moisture, as well as sequester carbon in the ground.
All of these strategies depend on which chemicals they decide to produce and their usefulness in the industry, and the process is slow, the researchers say. But the results could mean eventually changing the way industry operates and contributing to a more sustainable world.
“We have to demonstrate that we can provide efficient and cost-effective products, and do that as well or better than those using traditional organisms,” Kehoe says. “We want to develop processes that are turn-key commercially, so we can say to companies, ‘Here’s how to get this product and help the environment.’ That’s our challenge.”
This project is part of the Urban Green Infrastructure working group at ERI. Learn more about its focus and other projects.