Fueling The Future

Mar 23, 2021 | News & Articles

When biology professor David Hanson wants to relax, he watches a cooking show with his kids or bakes a tiered cake. It’s that right-brain activity that helps propel his left brain toward scientific discovery. “When I’m thinking about solving a problem it’s much more my creativity in the arts than in science that guides me,” he says. The mind of this plant biologist and inventor, on the faculty at UNM for the past 16 years, is behind a large and active laboratory that has attracted graduate students and research assistants from around the world and kicked out two inventions recently that have the potential to reduce the price of biofuel, help keep nutritious plants in space for astronauts, and make your green chile, tomato or even your wine tastier. Hanson is part of a project with Sandia National Laboratories that received a $2.4 million U.S. Department of Energy grant to explore adapting “microneedles,” extremely small, painless needles developed at Sandia, to use as moisture sensors for plants. With a graduate student and a doctoral candidate, Hanson just formed the startup company MicroCeres (named after the goddess of agriculture) and is testing its microneedle technology in farm fields as a step toward commercialization. If a farmer wants to know the exact amount of moisture in a plant, he can stick the harmless microneedle in it, get a reading and adjust his irrigating, fertilizing or harvesting accordingly. If he leaves the microneedle connected, the plant can control the watering automatically. This automation may prove especially valuable for busy astronauts on the international space station or during long missions to Mars. It’s nothing that Hanson envisioned when he began studying plant biology, but he has found many research grants are now geared toward eventual licensing of discoveries for commercial use. Hanson’s other pending patent application is another potential marketplace disruptor — streamlining the process of extracting biofuels from algae. The idea came about when he told a graduate student he couldn’t imagine how his idea to encapsulate and grow microalgae in a gel could possibly work. After all, he reasoned, growth requires easy access to CO2 in the air. “I said, ‘It probably doesn’t work, but you can try,’” Hanson says with a laugh today. They found it did work when encapsulated in a silica gel that had been invented in the UNM School of Engineering. “We found the cells stop dividing but become more metabolically active,” Hanson says. And they lived for much longer than algae cells in water. Furthering the research, Hanson found that he could place two single-celled species together in a gel and they could feed off one another. That idea, called encapsulating communities, resulted in another patent application. Hanson is excited by the possibility that his encapsulating innovation could help bring down the costs of biofuels, which currently require frequent harvesting and replacement of algae. Besides applications to biofuels, Hanson also sees the possibility of its use in highervalue products, such as plastics, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. The other benefit, maybe greater than all that, is an uptick in interest in science spurred by his biofuel project. “When I talk about plant physiology, everyone leaves the room,” Hanson says. “When I talk about biofuels or space biology, I get a lot of questions.” He calls it “stealth STEM,” a phrase borrowed from his colleague Steve Gomez at the Santa Fe Community College. “They come in interested in biofuels and not interested in science. And then to understand biofuels, they’re doing science. It’s rewarding.” ❂