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Surface attached enzymes for the production of biomass energy from agricultural waste


The ability to attach functional proteins, antibodies and enzymes to surfaces underpins the development of the next generation of implantable medical devices, biosensors and protein arrays for disease screening and enzyme based chemical processing. This project brings together a multidisciplinary team of physicists, biochemists, biologists and medical practitioners to solve fundamental problems associated with the development of such devices and processes. Two Australian companies are directly involved and poised to bring the new developments to market.


Professor Marcela Bilek.

Research location

School of Physics

Program type



The production of ethanol from agricultural products is becoming a major source of liquid fuels derived from renewable sources to replace oil. However, there are major problems emerging associated with the diversion of food crops such as corn and sugar cane, into industries supplying fuels for transport. Certain enzymes known as cellulases are capable of breaking down complex cellulose material produced as waste in forestry into sugars that can be processed readily to ethanol. Other enzymes such as hydrogenase can produce hydrogen from organic matter, for use in a future "hydrogen economy". These enzymes are currently expensive and can lose their activity when poisoned by products of the reactions they catalyse. This project will investigate the use of plasma activated surfaces to attach the enzymes and preserve their function. The fact that the enzymes are immobilised on a surface enables the process to be more readily controlled and assists in enzyme preservation. Suitable surfaces will be produced by plasma surface modification of polymers or by depositing a polymer directly from a plasma under energetic ion flux. Such plasma based modification processes have been developed and patented by our group. We have already shown that the surfaces produced covalently attach enzymes such as horse radish peroxidise and preserve their function. The mechanism for the covalent attachment is still under investigation and bonding to free radicals created on the surface by the plasma process is a likely mechanism. Students undertaking this project will join a dynamic interdisciplinary team, consisting of physicists, chemists and molecular biologists. The ability of the surfaces to immobilise the enzymes will be studied using surface sensitive techniques such as ellipsometry, quartz crystal microbalance, surface plasmon resonance, x-ray photoemission spectroscopy and infrared spectroscopy. Retention of the function of the enzymes will be tested in a suitable assay to be developed in the project.  The project will also examine the dynamics of the reaction catalysed and devise suitable geometries for a realistic process based on a knowledge of the reaction kinetics.

Additional information

This research field is very large and rapidly evolving so there are a number of projects available for PhD, Masters and Honours students. Students involved in the work will learn how to work in an interdisciplinary team. They will become proficient in a number of state of the art techniques for the analysis of surfaces and/or biomolecules and cells. Some of the projects will involve direct interaction with industry. Top up scholarships are available for students with sufficiently high grades or other relevant experience. Projects which involve collaborations with industry partners will require the student to sign an IP assignment agreement.

HDR Inherent Requirements
In addition to the academic requirements set out in the Science Postgraduate Handbook, you may be required to satisfy a number of inherent requirements to complete this degree. Example of inherent requirement may include:

- Confidential disclosure and registration of a disability that may hinder your performance in your degree;
- Confidential disclosure of a pre-existing or current medical condition that may hinder your performance in your degree (e.g. heart disease, pace-maker, significant immune suppression, diabetes, vertigo, etc.);
- Ability to perform independently and/or with minimal supervision;
- Ability to undertake certain physical tasks (e.g. heavy lifting);
- Ability to undertake observatory, sensory and communication tasks;
- Ability to spend time at remote sites (e.g. One Tree Island, Narrabri and Camden);
- Ability to work in confined spaces or at heights;
- Ability to operate heavy machinery (e.g. farming equipment);
- Hold or acquire an Australian driver’s licence;
- Hold a current scuba diving license;
- Hold a current Working with Children Check;
- Meet initial and ongoing immunisation requirements (e.g. Q-Fever, Vaccinia virus, Hepatitis, etc.)

You must consult with your nominated supervisor regarding any identified inherent requirements before completing your application.

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Opportunity ID

The opportunity ID for this research opportunity is 710

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