In a groundbreaking fusion of nature and innovation, researchers are harnessing the power of fungi to engineer membranes for oil-water separation, offering a promising avenue for sustainable and eco-friendly solutions to combat crude oil spills. This bio-inspired breakthrough not only draws inspiration from the incredible powers of fungi, but also integrates principles from a broader perspective of bioinspired materials and their potential in enhancing membrane sustainability.
Janus membranes, the linchpin of this innovation, boast distinct properties on each side. With one side displaying superhydrophilicity—signifying an exceptional affinity for water and polar liquids—and the other side being superhydrophobic, demonstrating a remarkable attraction to nonpolar liquids such as oil and hydrocarbons, these membranes possess a unique "superamphiphilicity." This quality can be fine-tuned to cater to specific needs by adjusting the wetting properties of each membrane surface.
Recently graduated Ph.D. student Joyce Cavalcante and her supervisor, chemical engineer Gyorgy Szekely are mimicking nature's designs to create materials with enhanced properties. They devised a method to exploit mycelium to create superamphiphilic Janus membranes for efficient oil-water separation. Cavalcante elucidates that this approach not only taps into the self-growing nature of fungi-based materials but also aligns with their research on the sustainability and environmental friendliness of bioinspired materials.
The mycelium master culture, cultivated from fresh oyster mushrooms, served as the cornerstone. Colonies resulting from inoculation on nanoporous membrane contactors facilitated nutrient transfer while preventing fungal fibers from penetrating the growth medium.
The mycelium membrane, easily detached from the contactor surface, featured a superhydrophobic top surface and a superhydrophilic bottom surface, aligning with its superamphiphilicity. Hydrophobins, surface-active fungal proteins with hydrophilic and hydrophobic patches, played a pivotal role in this alignment, engineered for nutrient transfer through a porous interface, ultimately creating a superamphiphilic Janus membrane.
Oil-sorption tests revealed the remarkable oil–water selectivity of mycelium-based membranes, surpassing other polymer-based membranes, including Janus membranes. Cavalcante sees this as a promising step towards next-generation membranes with enhanced selectivity and sorption capabilities, echoing the research abstract's discussion on the potential of biomimetic membranes.
Looking forward, the researchers are optimistic, aiming to explore scalability, optimize manufacturing processes, and further enhance performance. As Cavalcante concludes, "Stay tuned for exciting developments in the intersection of mycomaterials and environmental innovation," echoing the broader vision outlined in the research abstract for sustainable alternatives in addressing environmental challenges.
Joyce completed her Ph.D. at KAUST in 2023 as a researcher in Gyorgy Szekely's group. Currently, she is a postdoctoral researcher at KAUST. Her research focuses on sustainable engineering, developing green alternatives for conventional separation systems.
Cavalcante, J. & Szekely, G. Surface engineering of a superamphiphilic, self-growing fibrous Janus membrane prepared from mycelium. Journal of Materials Chemistry A 11, 24598–24607 (2023).| article.
[Image credits: Joyce Cavalcante]