During the Opening Plenary Session of the 41st Annual Board of Governors Meeting which took place yesterday, May 29th, 2011, BGU President, Prof. Rivka Carmi presented Dr. Lital Alfonta, a senior lecturer in the Avram and Stella Goldstein-Goren Department of Biotechnology Engineering, with the Marc Rich Foundation Prize for Women Researchers 2010/11 "for pursuing fruitful scientific endeavors and excellence in research and for contributing to the advancement of the status of women researchers in academia in general and at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in particular".
Last year Dr. Alfonta received a prestigious 1.4 million Euro European Research Council Grant for “pioneering frontier research in any field of science, engineering and scholarship.” Alfonta is a storehouse of ideas and innovation she has been applying at BGU for four years. Among her current projects is a venture in finding alternative energy sources. Alfonta, whose husband Dr. Michael Meijler is also a prominent researcher with BGU’s Department of Chemistry, is working to find a way of coupling enzymes with micro-organisms to produce energy. “Basically, it’s about finding efficient ways of using micro-organisms as catalysts in fuel cells,” Alfonta explains.
The micro-organisms she refers to are yeast and e-coli bacteria that would be genetically modified to fuel cells and power. The power produced, however, is low level. It couldn’t be used to run a car but it could be applied to space satellite stations beaming back images to earth. “The micro-organism/enzyme fueled batteries would make an outer space monitoring system more efficient because there wouldn’t be batteries and maintenance involved. That cuts costs for space exploration.”
Mico-organisms could also be used for implantable devices, Alfonta says, such as bio-medical devices for patients. Pacemakers and sensing devices such as glucose blood level monitoring devices generally running on batteries could be fueled by Alfonta’s alternative method. But patients might bristle. “A problem I see is using genetically modified organisms – which are an ethical issue with a lot of people,” Dr. Alfonta explains. “Also, patients might not want to release the sort of micro-orgasms we’re talking about here into the body without guarantees that there wouldn’t be any leakage.”
But Alfonta and her team of researchers are working diligently to find solutions that provide the guarantees patients would need to feel safe. Currently, their main focus is formulating how to couple micro-organisms with electrodes so that a current flow transfers electrons from one place to another and regenerates energy catalysts once the enzymes lose activity.
One thing Alfonta is sure of: “No one else in the global forum is doing this,” she beams. “Genetically modifying micro-organisms for bio-fuel cell application is a first and it’s unique because we have knowledge from the worlds of electro-chemistry and molecular biology and we are combining them both.” Dr. Alfonta predicts a breakthrough to the next phase within the coming year or two by which time she says she’ll probably be endeavoring at least several other projects.