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Extractor for Chemical Analysis of Lipid Biomarkers in Regolith (ExCALiBR)

Jun 10, 2023Jun 10, 2023

Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA

The analysis of lipid biomarkers has gained increasing importance within environmental and archaeological fields because biomarkers are representative of plant and animal sources. Proven gold standard laboratory techniques for lipid biomarker extraction are laborious, with many opportunities for human error. As a solution, NASA Ames Research Center has developed a novel technology that provides an autonomous, miniaturized fluidic system for lipid analysis. The technology, in a single instrument, can accept an unprocessed soil, rock, or ice sample, comminute the sample, extract lipids via sonication and blending, filter out mineral residue, concentrate the analyte, and deliver the aliquot to downstream analytical instruments for molecular characterization, without requiring intervention from a human operator.

The technology provides miniaturized techniques for extracting trace amounts of organic molecules (lipids) from natural samples. It operates as an autonomous, miniaturized fluidic system, integrating lab techniques for lipid analysis while minimizing reagent volumes and concentrating organics for analysis, thereby increasing signal-to-noise ratios by orders of magnitude.

The non-aqueous fluidic system for astrobiological and life-detection missions (either in situ or returned sample) is configured to extract lipid organics from regolith using a fluidic sample processor made of materials compatible with organic solvents and a machine-learning system to select processing steps and parameters to maximize lipid yield.

A critical gap is bridged by integrating technologies into a system that replicates analytical lab procedures autonomously on a spaceflight instrument scale with fidelity to original lab techniques. Automated fluidic devices combine controlled handling of liquids with sequential operations and parallelization of replicate processes. By designing such systems to closely interface with both sample-delivery and analytical measurement systems, laboratory analyses are automated.

The technology adapts best practice laboratory methods for lipid analysis, overcoming analytical challenges like low organic abundance, interference of minerals/salts, and degradation of origin-diagnostic molecular structures. The extraction and concentration techniques from rock/soil samples can be applied to any biomarkers by changing the solvent, temperature, and agitation.

Applications include analyzing oil trapped in geological deposits and exploration technologies; petroleum protecting, both in the area of unconventional oil and gas where micro-scale matters, as well as for sub-sea deployment systems and borehole environments; detecting lipids in Earth soil to determine presence of petrochemicals; to detect oil spills or other contamination; life detection in an astrobiologically significant sample in future missions to Mars, Enceladus, and/or Europa, analysis of natural, complex organic material preserved in soils and rock.

NASA is actively seeking licensees to commercialize this technology. Please contact NASA's Licensing Concierge at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or call at 202-358-7432 to initiate licensing discussions. For more information, visit here .

This article first appeared in the June, 2023 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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