New therapeutic against arthritis and a new storage system for wind energy

The Pioneer Fund supports promising projects at TU Darmstadt

2021/05/18 by

Research projects at TU Darmstadt receive a total of 600,000 euros of funding each year from the joint “Pioneer Fund” programme from TU Darmstadt and the ENTEGA NATURpur Institute. Two future-oriented projects in the fields of medicine and energy technology are due to start soon.

View into the laboratory of Dr. Meike Saul.

More than twelve million people in Germany alone suffer from osteoarthritis, an inflammatory joint disease in which the body’s own cells destroy bone substance. “There has not yet been a medicine released on the market that inhibits bone loss and at the same time prevents the associated joint pain”, explains Dr. Meike Saul, head of a research group in the Department of Biology. She is working on the development of RNA substances to combat osteoarthritis and related diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis. The starting point for this innovative therapy is a microRNA called miR-574-5p. This small piece of RNA is involved in two important processes related to arthritic pain: pain mediation and the development of bone-eating cells.

In cooperation with the group headed by TU Chemistry Professor Harald Kolmar, Saul’s team has developed an inhibitor that binds to the MicroRNA and thus inactivates it. The inhibitor is a stable RNA-like molecule with a peptide backbone. “In laboratory experiments, we have seen that the substance can successfully reduce the development of bone-eating cells”, says Saul. Further studies into the efficacy of the inhibitor are now planned as part of the Pioneer Fund project, including in vivo studies in cooperation with the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.

In addition, the researchers aim to clarify whether the therapeutic should be administered regularly in smaller doses or instead as one large dose. The idea is to inject the substance directly into the diseased joint. “We hope that local application will result in significantly fewer side effects”, explains Saul. In collaboration with the Fraunhofer Institute for Translational Medicine and Pharmacology in Frankfurt, she also wants to optimise the chemical structure of the inhibitor in order to improve its efficiency and other properties.

As well as for the management of arthritic pain, it is possible that the novel RNA therapeutic could also be used to treat bone metastases in cancer patients. The first studies in this area are currently being carried out in the laboratories at TU Darmstadt. Although she is carrying out basic research, Saul says that it is always with an eye on transferring the results into practice. She will now be able to come a little closer to achieving this goal with support from the Pioneer Fund.

We are delighted that we are able to support two more outstanding projects that underline how strong TU Darmstadt is in the area of deep tech. We directly transfer ideas from research into the economy and society. The current coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated how successfully RNA substances can be used. The researchers in the fields of biology and chemistry work together closely at TU Darmstadt on the development of these substances because interdisciplinary cooperation is the key to discovering sustainable innovations. (Professor. Jens Schneider, Vice President for Transfer and International Affairs)

Wind turbines: Retrofitting with osmosis pumped storage systems

Dr.-Ing. habil. Falah Alobaid.
Dr.-Ing. habil. Falah Alobaid.

Wind turbines do not generate any electricity on calm days and sometimes have to be shut down on stormy days. A team headed by private lecturer Dr.-Ing. habil. Falah Alobaid is working on a solution that will ensure these turbines can reliably supply wind energy. The researchers at the TU Institute for Energy Systems and Technology have designed a storage system for surplus wind energy that can be built into the towers of the wind turbines. “We use the height and empty space within the towers for this purpose. Retrofitting the solution into existing wind turbines is possible without any further impact on the landscape”, emphasises Alobaid. The innovation is based on osmosis, a natural process that is used, for example, by plant roots to absorb water. The osmosis process is supported in this case by pumped storage technology that is already established in the energy sector.

The osmosis storage system consists of one reservoir containing salt water and another one containing fresh water. They are separated by a membrane that is only permeable for water molecules. Surplus wind energy is firstly used to concentrate the salt water using reverse osmosis. The natural process of osmosis, which would seek to balance the concentrations in both reservoirs, is overcome using pressure during this stage. The energy stored in this way can be converted back into electricity when the pure water flows into the salt water reservoir due to osmosis. The pressure that is generated in the salt water reservoir as a result can be used to drive a turbine with a generator. To further improve the efficiency of the osmosis technology, the researchers at TU Darmstadt have combined it with pumped storage technology: The salt water concentrate and the fresh water are pumped to the top of the tower – also using surplus wind energy. The potential energy stored in this way supplements the osmosis process and thus increases the efficiency of the storage system.

The concept was developed during several bachelor degrees and a patent application has already been filed. “Our hybrid osmosis pumped energy storage system, which we call HOPES for short, is inexpensive and environmentally friendly. It doesn’t require any batteries or rare metals, just a membrane”, says Alobaid to summarise the benefits. Together with his colleagues, he now wants to use the funding from the Pioneer Fund to build a pilot plant that is about ten metres high.

The efficient storage of electrical energy is an extremely important part of the energy transition. In the area of energy research, our researchers in the “Energy & Environment“ research field are working on new technologies, processes and their transfer into practical applications. We are using the Pioneer Fund to promote the further development of osmosis pumped storage systems for wind turbines. These systems will be able to reduce the volatility of the wind energy yields in the future and thus contribute to a more stable supply of renewable energies. (Harald Holzer, Managing Director of the HIGHEST Startup and Innovation Center at TU Darmstadt)

Pioneer Fund

The Pioneer Fund makes an important contribution to the transfer of scientific findings from the TU Darmstadt to industry and society. Together with its partner ENTEGA NATURpur, HIGHEST promotes innovations at a very early stage and thus increases the innovative capacity of the TU Darmstadt.

Pioneer Fund