Monthly Archives:   May 2016

PhD progress is like the weather in Norway – unpredictable
        
30
  30 May, 2016
        


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I am enjoying my PhD work, but there are many challenges to handle on the way. Photo: Per Henning/NTNU

 
After a long time without writing any posts, I am still here, ready for some new words. Last time I mentioned that I would say something about scientific life. I am at the same place, in the same conditions, surrounded with new scientific challenges, which currently stops me from writing my paper.

I would like to introduce PhD candidates’ most common opponent before the official defense and its name is time, which runs so fast that you cannot keep up. To me, it seems like the amount of work increases with time while challenges remain in spite of good progress. I am very sure that most of you immediately got the point why I have not written any posts since last summer. I am not trying to justify myself, but that is reality. Anyways, I think it will be useful (at least for some of you) to have an overview of PhD life and activities at NTNU Trondheim after more than one and a half years from the start (middle of the PhD programme).

The first thing that came to my mind when I passed the last exam was that I will have more time for myself and my research, which will exponentially influence the development of my PhD work. This is logical, it makes sense, but now I see that logic does not work all the time.

It takes a lot of time

Mostly, this looks like sine and cosine functions, which goes up and down. I can say for myself that things are going more or less ok, but not with the same acceleration as I was expecting. Now I see that PhD progress is unpredictable and it is good to be aware of this before starting. Sometimes things do not look so difficult, but it takes a lot of time, and sometimes huge issues can be solved quickly, sometimes by picking up a new idea after an unintentional mistake which was made during an experiment. As one of my colleagues always says: “You never know why it is good”.

Bad results are also good results

Each time you don’t succeed with an experiment, and struggle for a long time, think twice before getting upset, because “bad” results are actually “good”. This is the chance to figure out something new, maybe to discover a new phenomenon, or to realize a “missing element” in your knowledge. Since PhD work is a learning process, like everything else in life, a positive attitude and good ideas followed by a proper plan will usually give good output sooner or later. My motto is: keep on going, be patient and keep it positive.

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Here I am in the lab preparing for one of my experiments. Photo: Per Henning/NTNU

 

Exciting research

My research topic is based on thermoelectric materials, which is part of the national project called Thelma. Thermoelectric materials are able to transform heat into electricity and vice versa. The project is based on nano-structuring for improving the energy efficiency of thermoelectric generators and heat-pumps, where my aim of work is focused on studies on developing technology for new generators for commercialization. This project is interesting and in spite of many challenges and tough goals, we still have good fun.

Besides the Thelma project, there are many other amusing projects where other colleagues are working. Some of these are related to batteries, solid oxide fuel cells, biomaterials, piezoelectric, etc. As far as I know, several new colleagues will start soon as new PhD and post-doc. positions will be available.
Currently, I am waiting for June when I will visit the summer school in Limoges (France), then a conference on a cruise through the northern part of Norway, which will probably be exciting. The plan is also to go somewhere on an internship by the end of the year. Next time I write, you will find out more about it.

Best regards

The biorefineries’ best friends
        
25
  25 May, 2016
        


How can LPMO enzymes transform cellulose into essentials like food and fuel? By the use of NMR (Nuclear Magnetic Resonance) spectroscopy we have found important answers to this question. In the future, these findings might help us control and optimize the production processes in biorefineries.

“Det grønne skiftet” (“the green shift”) won the Word of the Year 2015 award by the Norwegian Language Council. Not without reason, the expression simplifies a complex transition from an oil-based economy to a bio-based economy.

Conversion of biomass

The cornerstone of the green shift is technology that allows us to convert biomass (organic matter from living organisms) into food, materials, chemicals, feed and fuels. This is not a simple process either. Biomass comes in many different forms; the most abundant of which is cellulose: a polymer that is the main component of plants and trees. Naturally, cellulose is very stable and difficult to break down, which is a great advantage for the trees that produce it, but poses a daunting task for industrial biomass conversion in biorefineries.

Important enzymes

Here is where a group of enzymes (tiny molecular machines) known as lytic polysaccharide monooxygenases (LPMOs) comes into play. LPMOs were discovered in 2010 by Vincent Eijsink’s group at NMBU at Ås, and have ever since been in the scientific spotlight. They have been called “tiny wood chip machines” and “reverse photosynthesizers”. Indeed, LPMOs are fascinating enzymes. They are produced by certain bacteria and fungi, and use oxygen, electrons and copper to make nicks on cellulose chains. These nicks cause cellulose to lose some of its stability, making it more susceptible to degradation and making biorefineries more efficient.

This figure shows four NMR spectra in which the empty LPMO (blue) can either bind CDH (red) or cellulose (green), but not bind both of them at the same time (purple).This means that the LPMO must bind CDH (and get all the electrons it needs) before it can bind cellulose.

This figure shows four NMR spectra in which the empty LPMO (blue) can either bind CDH (red) or cellulose (green), but not bind both of them at the same time (purple).This means that the LPMO must bind CDH (and get all the electrons it needs) before it can bind cellulose.

 

NMR spectroscopy

The purpose of my PhD project is to use NMR spectroscopy to study the function of LPMOs in greater detail, as the interactions between the different factors (cellulose, copper, oxygen, electron donors, LPMO) must be optimized in order to maximize the efficiency of the LPMO reaction.

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Publication: Interactions of a fungal lytic polysaccharide monooxygenase with β-glucan substrates and cellobiose dehydrogenase

In recent papers, we have used brand-new NMR instrumentation installed at Gløshaugen to study the interplay between an LPMO, woody materials (like cellulose) and CDH (another enzyme that fuels the LPMO reaction with electrons).

Crucial step of the reaction discovered

Together with our collaborators in NMBU, Aalborg University, BOKU Vienna and SLU Uppsala, we showed that the LPMO must first receive electrons from CDH before binding to cellulose. This is a crucial step of the reaction and implies something else that is extraordinary about LPMOs: that they are somehow able to store electrons.

Future control and optimization

This finding may be applied to control and optimize the flow of electrons to LPMOs, an important feature to maximize LPMO activity in biorefineries.

15N-HSQC. Fingerprint of the LPMO. Approximately, every peak is unique and corresponds to one amino acid in the protein.

15N-HSQC. Fingerprint of the LPMO. Approximately, every peak is unique and corresponds to one amino acid in the protein.

Paper: Backbone and side-chain 1H, 13C, and 15N chemical shift assignments for the apo-form of the lytic polysaccharide monooxygenase NcLPMO9C

 

Why do we need so many species?
        
18
  18 May, 2016
        


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A happy PhD candidate visiting a forest remnant near the state border of São Paulo and Minas Gerais.

 

For decision making, it is important to understand the long-term consequences of forest loss on both the biodiversity and the human population.

Some days “at the office” means more than just a computer and an R script, even to a theoretical ecologist. My doctoral project is carried out in collaboration with research groups from Rio Claro, Brazil. Because of this, once in a while I get to have a total change of scenery at work; from fjords and fjelds to neo-tropical forests and vast plantations.

The Brazilian Atlantic Rainforest

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Brazilian Atlantic forests are seasonal rainforests, having a wet and a dry season.

In my PhD project, I want to gain knowledge on the links between forest fragmentation, biodiversity and ecosystem services. Brazilian Atlantic rainforests are under intensive land-use pressure set by agriculture and forestry (less than 10 % of original forest cover remain).

The high level of fragmentation in these rainforests leads to biodiversity loss and degradation of ecosystem functioning, and thereby of the ecosystem services that human population benefits from.

 

Interactions between species

Based on the spatial insurance hypothesis, it can be assumed that larger networks of species-to-species interactions will maintain the availability of these ecosystem services.

To connect biodiversity dynamics and forest fragmentation, I will use a database that includes studies over a long time period and a large area on the coastal rainforests of Brazil.

Trees and seed dispersing animals

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Primates are important for tree seed dispersal, which is a key element of forest regeneration.

The dataset covers many species communities from trees and birds to dung beetles and large mammals. In my project, I will be looking at the interactions within and between communities, such as between trees and seed dispersing animals.

As an example, large mammals spread large seeds of trees that store a lot of carbon from the atmosphere. The carbon storage is considered to be an important ecosystem service that benefits the human population via climate control.

When the large mammals are hunted to extinction or disappear because the forest fragments are too small to support their populations, also the big trees disappear and are replaced by smaller trees with lower carbon storage capacity.

The effect of fragmentation

The study sites in question cover areas with higher and lower degrees of fragmentation so it will be possible to evaluate the effect of fragmentation on the communities.

Statistical methods

I will utilize newly developed statistical models to illustrate whether plant-animal interactions, namely seed dispersal and pollination networks, are influenced across the forest fragmentation gradient.

I predict that the networks are simpler in more fragmented landscapes and provide ecosystem services in a smaller extent compared to the more continuous parts of the ecosystem.

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A Malaise trap was used to sample predator wasps in Atlantic forest nearby a coffee plantation.

 

Whether my predictions are right or not, we will see as I continue the work with my PhD project.

New subsea treating process will allow access to closed gas fields
        
12
  12 May, 2016
        


A High-Pressure Vapor-Liquid-Equilibrium (VLE) apparatus will be used for the measurement of the thermodynamic properties of the solvent , with Associate Professor Hanna Knuutila. Photo: Per Henning/NTNU

A High-Pressure Vapor-Liquid-Equilibrium (VLE) apparatus will be used for the measurement of the thermodynamic properties of the solvent , with Associate Professor Hanna Knuutila. Photo: Per Henning/NTNU

Extracting oil and gas from subsea production fields is a complicated process. Today it is done from offshore platforms, but the development in the oil and gas industry is towards unmanned production units placed on the seabed.

Moreover, subsea operations will allow production in deeper waters, as well as in remote areas with severe weather conditions, where the size, weight and energy demands of the installations are key-elements.

Harmful to the pipelines

Acidic gases, such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and hydrogen sulfide (H2S), and water vapor are impurities found in the natural gas coming from the reservoir and they must be removed before it can be sold. The water can corrode the pipelines and lead to the formation of ice crystals, called hydrates, which can clog the pipelines.

Acidic gases, in the presence of water, can form acids that corrode pipelines and other equipment. H2S, which is a colorless gas with a characteristic odor, is in addition poisonous and explosive. Therefore, safe operations necessitate the removal of these impurities.

Onshore treatment of the gas

There are two well-established industrial absorption processes onshore for this purpose:

  • removal of H2S/CO2 with amine-based solvents.
  • removal of water with glycol-based solvents.

In both cases, the gas meets the liquid solvent inside a column, which captures the desired impurities. Then, the solvent carrying the acid gas or the water enters a desorption column, where the impurities are removed and the solvent is ready to be used again, i.e. the solvent is regenerated.

Offshore treatment
Offshore, glycols are used for hydrate inhibition while, when selective removal of H2S is required, a liquid solvent, called triazine, is typically used. Triazine is a non-regenerative solvent and can treat only gases with low concentrations of H2S. However, treatment of gases with high concentrations of H2S would be enabled by the use of a regenerative solvent.

Discussing the simulation work performed and the development of the process with PhD candidate Kristin Dalane. Photo: Per Henning/NTNU

Discussing the simulation work performed and the development of the process with PhD candidate Kristin Dalane. Photo: Per Henning/NTNU

 

My PhD work

In my work as a doctorate candidate, I will help develop a new process for simultaneous removal of H2S and water from the natural gas, using a solvent system, which can be regenerated. The regeneration will take place topside and the separation will take place subsea, unmanned.

In addition to moving oil and gas production towards safer and more effective processes, the combination of the two processes in one will also lead to a more compact, smaller installation with lower energy requirements as well as it will allow for production from high H2S-concentration gas fields that are closed today.

In this way, new energy resources will be made available for a society with steadily increasing energy needs.