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Miracle membrane manipulated to measure methane

An “intelligent” membrane that keeps liquids out and can be customised to let specific gases through was designed to reshape the methane-testing procedure for cattle. Instead, its inventors, Meat & Livestock Australia and RMIT University, are now offering its application to a wider market and seeking partners interested in fluid and gas monitoring diagnostic solutions.

Diagram image of inter-ruminal device in an intestine
Words by Bev Hadgraft

With a deadline of 2030, Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) has been heavily investing in research to enable the industry to reach a carbon neutral position. 

Finding the most accurate method of measuring methane gases produced in the rumen of cattle has been a key priority to reaching this goal, which led to exploring the potential of semi-permeable gas membranes.

“The red meat industry was looking to develop a real time device that could measure methane and carbon,” explained Amanda McAlpine, MLA’s Commercialisation IP Manager. 

“The idea developed and trialled created an inter-ruminal device, to test whether new diets and initiatives were working to reduce methane, which if viable could also be used as a tool for landowners to claim carbon credits under the Carbon Farming Initiative.”

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Current methods of measuring methane from cattle, can be invasive or not reflective of real time grazing monitoring, Amanda explained. 

MLA and its research partners wanted a tool that could measure methane in the animal’s natural surrounds and be used both for research, especially when trialling different diets, and hopefully on-farm to prove that methane reductions had been achieved. “We were hopeful that this tool could assist farmers accessing no or low carbon markets and is also useful for the country’s inventory.”

A partnership with Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) provided a semipermeable membrane, which could be used in an inter-rumen device envisaged by MLA, CSIRO, Dairy Australia and the Australian Wool Innovation. 

What’s novel about this membrane? 

Of course, gas permeable, liquid resistant membranes are nothing new – think contact lenses and Gortex. What makes this membrane novel is that normally silicone membranes have no selectivity – they let all gases in.

“This material is specific, so we can manipulate the passenger through the membranes,” explained inventor, Associate Professor Jianzhen Ou.

The new nanocomposite gas membrane was utilised within a capsule or bolus-type device. This had a small hole at one end, covered with this membrane. Resistant to liquids, it was manipulated to admit only the specific gases required for testing ­– in this case CO2 and methane although other permutations are possible.

Inside the capsule, a sensor measured the admitted gases and, with WiFi capability then transmitted the information back to another device. 

Ruminants have incredibly harsh digestive systems which produce significant amounts of a range of toxic and corrosive gases – so it was crucial the membrane be developed so that these gases were unable to penetrate the capsule and corrode the circuits, explained, Jianzhen. 

For MLA’s purposes, Jianzhen developed three different types of membranes designed to manipulate different gas diffusions. Initial trials of the device inside a ruminant’s gut proved it only lasted three days. With RMIT’s new membrane, the lifetime of the capsule was increased significantly to 28 days.

Another bonus is its strong anti-microbial qualities. Like so much good science, this came about as the result of a happy accident. 

“We put an agent into the membrane initially to prevent certain gases but found it was also super anti-bacterial,” added Jianzhen. 

“Normally, if you put a membrane in a gut, the microbiome would grow within seven days. With this anti-bacterial agent, it didn’t grow for 21 days. It was a great development. It meant no fouling and we knew exactly what was going on in the gut.”

The membrane, an affordable product to manufacture

The membrane appeared to be ticking every box. It was even cheap to manufacture.

“The raw material is silicone which is widely available and one gram of the functional materials we incorporate into the membranes to define the manipulations covers tens or hundreds of square meters. Making it is a very cheap process,” explained Jianzhen.

It is also very malleable – just 0.1 mm thick, it’s very flexible and therefore less fragile than might be expected.

“The intra-ruminal device while useful as a research tool, to measure methane reducing supplements, however, wasn’t successful for longer term commercial use.”

The membrane has amazing properties, which allow gas through, whilst keeping liquid out, explained Amanda. “The membrane part is still patented, and we think it could be of value to other environmental, animal and food industries.”

To capitalise on the progress made so far – MLA and RMIT are seeking investors or research partners interested in commercialising and utilising the membrane technology. MLA and RMIT share the intellectual property, and RMIT is the commercialising partner for the technology.

Such a partnership has significant advantages for anyone who is interested, said Mohan Sridhar Senior Manager, IP & Commercialisation at RMIT. “We would customise solutions for their use-cases and validate it for their particular use.”

“So if you were talking about, for example, environmental monitoring companies, who wanted to make a measuring device more sensitive and selective, we could partner with them.”

“Typically, there would be a portion of research to make sure it was fit for purpose and industry partners could use it for what they want.” 

RMIT expect a range of industries to benefit from the technology

“It’s anticipated that having Jian onboard would also be an advantage as he is one of the inventors of that membrane and has the expertise in this area as well as wanting to carry out further development.”

Mohan believes a range of industries could benefit from the technology. 

“Environmental monitoring seems to be the obvious one. Mining is also a possibility, perhaps if miners needed a wearable device to detect gases.” 

Jianzhen also believes it could be used in aquatic environments. “You could put it underwater and if you need to detect gases in that water, it would be ideal. It could also be used in aquaculture if you wanted to monitor water quality and keep gases at certain levels. There are aggressive species that consume oxygen in water and produce carbon dioxide and it would be useful to monitor that.” 

Since the membrane can be used in different animal systems, it could also be used as a diagnostic tool in animals, adds Amanda.  

“If you had acid, cancer or a cyst in your belly, you’ll produce different gases than a healthy digestive tract.” Amanda also suggests there may be a role for the membrane in the food or wine industries and believes growAG. is the best place to promote the offer. “It’s the new platform that RDC’s are using.”

The membrane has also been tested by Atmo Biosciences as a human diagnostic tool and there are currently no encumbrances around the Intellectual Property.

Any interested parties should Enquire now.

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