James Behan, a chemist working on materials providing greener electrocatalysis
[BIENVENÜE team] Hello James, can you tell us more about how you became interested in your research area?
[Dr James Behan] I studied chemistry at university and specialized in electrochemistry during my PhD. I was in particular working on electrocatalysts, which are materials that facilitate electrochemical reactions. During my PhD and then my first post-doc, I also worked in nanomaterial synthesis and characterisation, especially for nanomaterials applied in a biological environment (like the soil, the ocean, or even the human body). Nanomaterials are materials which have a size that is at most hundreds of times smaller than the thickness of a single human hair. Materials and catalyst research like this can be considered as fundamental research, though many useful applications in devices and medicine exist as well.
What are you researching with the BioNanoCat project?
I will continue working on catalysts, but now I am looking for methods of exploiting the activity of living micro-organisms (especially of bacteria) to synthesise the catalysts for me. Some of the most important electrochemical reactions are done using precious metals such as platinum. This presents a number of problems: they are expensive materials to source, and their geographical distribution is not always uniform, which introduces further costs in transport, not to mention potential geopolitical issues.
Now there is growing interest in using bacteria or other micro-organisms that are able to produce alternative catalysts using cheaper materials by themselves. This works because some bacteria grow in environments rich in metal contamination, either due to industrial or agricultural activity or due to natural processes. These metals (for example cobalt or copper) are toxic to them, just as they would be to us, so the bacteria have evolved mechanisms to absorb and neutralise them. If we grow the bacteria on a material, they can form a kind of colony on the surface known as a biofilm. Then we can exploit the natural processes of this biofilm by collecting the catalysts (which are often present as nanoparticles) and testing their activity in important reactions.
Beyond the use of bacteria to create green energy sources, this process can also be considered green in the sense that the bacteria are removing these heavy metals from the natural environment, so it is also a form of decontamination.
What are the perspectives in terms of application?
At the end of the fellowship, I do not plan to have a full device working and ready to be commercialized. My aim is to develop a strategy for preparing and isolating catalysts and to test their activity at a fundamental level. I am focused more on getting the material side working. In the long term, my work could help prepare fuel cells devices, which are green energy sources because they release energy without the release of CO2.
Why did you choose to come to Brittany?
My supervisor is a world leader expert in the area of bioelectrochemistry, so this is the ideal laboratory to conduct this work. We already collaborated during my PhD and I was interested in this domain. I am bringing my expertise on the material side and will work on microbiology as part of my upskilling and training.
Finally, do you have some recommendations for a reader eager to know more about electrochemistry and biofilms?
I will keep a blog about the progress of the project on my own website, jamesbehan.net, as well as on other scientific sites like researchgate. The project is just getting started now, but I hope to communicate what is going on in the work in a very accessible way to outsiders!