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ASU s Neal Woodbury on How Arrays Can Be Used to Generate Hydrogen

Neal Woodbury
Center for Bio-Optical Nanotechnology, Biodesign Institute, Arizona State University

At a Glance

Name: Neal Woodbury

Title: Director, Center for Bio-Optical Nanotechnology, Biodesign Institute, Arizona State University

Professional Background: 2002 — present, Director, Center for BioOptical Nanotechnology, Biodesign Institute at ASU; 1998 — present, Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Arizona State Univeristy.

Education: University of California, Davis, BS, Biochemistry, 1979; University of Washington. PhD, Biochemistry, 1986.

Last week CombiMatrix announced an agreement with the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University to allow the publicly funded institute to use its proprietary technology to synthesize polypeptides, and design a polypeptide bench-top synthesizer, similar to the one CombiMatrix has developed for the creation of custom DNA microarrays.

To learn more about the agreement and how each party gains from it, BioArray News spoke with Neal Woodbury, the director of the Biodesign Institute's Center for Bio-Optical Nanotechnology, as well as CombiMatrix CEO Amit Kumar (see story, this issue) this week.

Can you tell me a little bit more about this recent agreement with CombiMatrix? From what I read it seems that they are allowing you to work with their technology to develop some sort of polypeptide array synthesizer.

This is correct. So basically, CombiMatrix has a technology that they have been using to create DNA arrays, similar to the kinds of things that Affymetrix and other companies make, except they make them using, instead of light or spotting them on to a surface as some of the other companies do, they use electrochemical means to build the arrays up. So what we want to do is to take that technology and push that in the direction of peptides rather than nucleic acids. Then that opens up a whole new area of arrays that one can make, and their technology lends itself very well for converting peptides.

But are you in any way a commercial organization?

No. This is part of Arizona State University. Biodesign Institute is a research institute within the university. We are not commercial. We do own IP and things like that, but we don't produce products for sale and things of that nature.

So we are just working with them because we are interested in developing that kind of technology. I am particularly interested in using it for a project I am working on for the US Department of Energy which involves making arrays of peptides that we think might be useful as water-splitting catalysts for generating hydrogen.

And the trick is that if I can make 10,000 of them at a time and test them all, rather than making them one at a time, I am going to get there a lot faster.

How does the array fit into the equation of splitting water to generate hydrogen?

So the beautiful thing about CombiMatrix is that their arrays are made on electrodes, individual electrodes. So each, in this case, peptide, is made on a different electrode. And the technology involved is that what you are doing is you add one monomer at a time. You know peptides are made of amino acids. And so, they are just a string of amino acids. And the way we make this is by adding more amino acids and the next and the next. And you have to be able to decide which place this amino acid gets put on, which element in your array, because you are building them up. Say I want elements 5, 7, and 12, to get an alanine. So I turn the juice on to 5, 7 and 12 and now I can put alanines specifically on those.

Now I want in 15, 17, and 19, I want the phenylalanine, so I put the different amino acid on that. And I can build up whatever I want that way. This is a very nice technology for working with electrodes. So once I put these things on the electrodes, and I am fashioning these things after protein systems that exist in nature, that do this water-splitting reaction, except I don't know how they do it exactly. But once I make those things on the surface I can make 12,500 guesses, and we'll see which one works best by running currents through those things until we start to see hydrogen production — or oxygen in this case; water splitting. And we'll take the ones that give us the most current for the least voltage; the least power to get the most hydrogen.

But what is the DOE going to do with that?

Well this is part of this push towards the hydrogen economy. And one of the big problems is that there are many hurdles that we need to overcome to make that a reality. One of them is that the cost of making hydrogen from water is high. Because it turns out that it takes a lot more power than is thermodynamically necessary to make hydrogen from electricity.

Let's say you have a solar cell. It only works during the day. If I were to make hydrogen from that, I could store the hydrogen from that so at night I could use the hydrogen to run a fuel cell to give me electricity at night. The problem is that right now it costs a lot of money to make that hydrogen. I lose a lot of the energy from that solar cell in the process of making that hydrogen.

If I could come up with a catalyst, then I wouldn't have to lose as much energy from the solar cell to make the hydrogen. So then I could run this whole system for a lot less money, and proportionally the amount of electricity is how much money the whole thing winds up costing.

So the idea is to try and bring the price of a kilogram of hydrogen down to a much lower level than it is now.

What kind of funding is available for this?

This is a $1.5 million grant the DOE has given us over the next four years.

How realistic is it that you will be able to obtain your objective?

Well I am hoping very soon we will begin to see the results. I hope we will have arrays so we can start to see which peptides do a better job. Our collaborator in chemistry, Jim Allen, has already developed peptides that bind the right metals to do this sort of thing, so the model is ready to go and we are ready to make the variants of those, and the chemistry is almost set to actually make the arrays.

So, CombiMatrix really made it easier because if we can make the peptides using their technology, a lot of the problems we would have had making the peptides another way will go away. But I have great hope in the CombiMatrix approach. So hopefully we'll be able to make a real substantial reduction in the cost of making hydrogen. Now once you've got those catalysts there's a whole new process of how you synthesize those catalysts in bulk, how you put them on surfaces, make the electrodes and make the commercial device. So we won't be generating a commercial device in four years, but I hope we will have catalysts that are ready to be considered for use in commercial devices in four years.

I would really like to get to a point where we can combine what we know about chemistry with this high-throughput synthesis process. So we can make libraries, not as big as the random libraries, but say libraries of 100,000 — with good guesses for how a catalyst would work. And be able to generate catalysts directly from these kinds of arrays. So this is a matter of doing molecular evolution in array format.

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