Jonathan Toner studied forensic sciences at the University of West England. Since graduating, he has worked at various companies as a technical lead and now works at LabXero where he overseas product development.
Q: Can you describe in one sentence what this project is about?
The project focuses on the efficient capture and extraction of algae from their base material using acoustic fluidics (acoustofluidics).
Q: How did the idea for the project come about?
This happened a bit before my time since LabXero has been running for about four years now, and I only joined last year. The idea came from a couple of discussions between the directors and the board members who established and filed the IP for using acoustofluidics. They wanted to be able to separate cells and analytes from the base material (such as the growth medium) for bulk sample preparation. The current technology to do this requires batch processing with slow laborious techniques. Moreover, this sometimes requires specialist technicians. The company wanted to try and remove these standard processing methods and replace them with something that could be a continuous inline process. Such a process has the benefit that it could seamlessly connect downstream with the rest of the standard processing of the cells or analytes. We also want to be able to use inline sampling so that these samples can be tested with little impact to the system’s current operation.
Cost and efficiency are the two largest drivers for us as a company. We want separation and extraction of cells from the base material to be a hands-off inline process that can be fully automated.
Q: Can you explain the project in more detail?
Currently, fish farming is used for omega 3 production (which is consumed as a food supplement by humans). Considering the increase in the human population, this use of fish is probably not viable as a long-term solution to meet the demands for omega 3. So we want to use algae that produce the omega 3 instead. We sat down with some algae experts and design experts to break this process down into separate steps. This project aims to optimise one of these steps, namely the separation of the algae cells from their culture environment.
We set about to make a fully inline process while aiming for high-efficiency algae extraction. So after initial proof of concept we then had a design for a system that can be used at a bench-top scale, which is what we worked on in the past two years. If this process works and we are able to capture and extract the cells (and at a later stage, the omega 3) as well as automate this as a black-box system, we want to do an industrial scale up and use bioreactors for large-scale algae production.
Schematic representation of the acoustic process to separate cells or particles from their base material.
Q: Do you currently have all the experience/skills you need to start (and complete) this project or are you planning to learn these through Biomakespace?
One way in which Biomakespace has been invaluable for us is the rapid prototyping of components using available technologies such as 3D printing. We currently have a core team that includes a mechanical guy, an electronics guy, and a biologist. However, we are always keen for expertise from the electronic or mechanical engineering perspective. We are also interested in meeting people who are good at what they do and to share skills.
Sometimes we expand our team through a dedicated hire and sometimes through Biomakespace, so we might find people to bring into the business through Biomakespace. Sample preparation is used in all industries so we are constantly looking out for other areas to apply this technology. We might also be able to help someone else at Biomakespace with our technology, so please do contact us if you are interested.
Q: Are you looking for others to join you on this project?
With regards to the company, we are always looking for people to join projects or to spin off new projects. We have some experience using our core technology for biological cell and virus separation. If we then identify another area that this technology can be used in, we can spin out new projects.
Q: I know this is a tough question, but what is your current timeline?
In a general context related to this project, we are looking at a finished bench-top system in Q1 of 2020. What might take slightly longer is the electronics that goes with that, so the electronics will hopefully come mid-Q2 2020. In Q3 of 2020 we will likely see results coming in obtained with this setup. We then want to scale up to a larger setup, which we will hopefully complete in 2021. Because we are using Biomakespace only for the first step of this larger project, we think that we will be finished working on this specific project at the space in the next six months, when we have a working bench-top system.
Q: What do you expect from completing this project?
For the smaller project that we are doing at Biomakespace, we want to have made a high-throughput algae trapping/extraction system. We want to prove that the technology works in an automated fashion and prove that it has a high-throughput and can achieve a high-concentration of algae.
We might be putting the cells under a lot of stress with our technology and we don’t yet know what this does to algae cell walls. So, the added learning is what impact some of our high-frequency sound has on certain cells.
Q: Could you provide some resources to more information on the topic of your project?
Our website is a good source for those who want to learn more: www.labxero.co.uk