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ES32_NanoBioSeparations Group_Tomas Shaffer

Thomas Schäfer

943 01 8399

Group description

The Nanobioseparations Group was set up funded by the ERC Starting Grant “MATRIX” in 2009 with the aim of creating stimuli-responsive interfaces based on novel hybrid materials for sensors and separations rendering processes more “intelligent”, flexible, energy-efficient and in this way overall more sustainable.

In this context, the Group has been combining its long-standing experience on membrane separations technology with research on nuceic acid (DNA)-nanotechnology and the development of surface-sensitive characterization techniques. As a consequence, the Group’s activity is highly multidisciplinary ranging from theoretical chemistry to molecular biology but always with a chemical engineering perspective.

As a result from this collaborative effort, the Group founded a start-up in 2018 (“Surphase”, registered as Ingenious Membranes S.L.) supported by an ERC PoC Grant (“ESSENS”). The company commercializes a unique device for detecting the fouling of membranes in the more of 20.000 desalination plants worldwide producing 100 Mm3 of water per day.

The Group is actively collaborating with the European and North American Membrane Societies and co-chairing the bi-annual “Imagine Membrane” Conference Series.


  • membrane technology
  • DNA-technology
  • surface-sensitive techniques
  • ionic liquids

Team Description

  • Iliane Rafaniello (PHD Students)

    ORCID: 0000-0002-2870-7708

  • Beñat Olave (PHD Students)

    ORCID: 0000-0002-3331-1986

  • Jon Arrizabalaga (Research staff)

    ORCID: 0000-0002-4958-8656

  • Thomas Schäfer (Principal Investigator)

    ORCID: 0000-0002-7550-4807


  • SARSense: Conocimientos fundamentales sobre los mecanismos vinculantes para el diseño racional de sensores para la detección de SARS-CoV-2

    Pl: Thomas Schäfer

    Funding Agency*: INT (Euskampus)

    Ongoing: yes

  • DÉTENTE: Detección mediante técnicas físico-químicas específicas y ultrasensibles de SARS-CoV-2

    Pl: Thomas Schäfer, J.J. Cadenas (DIPC)

    Funding Agency*: RE

    Ongoing: yes

  • INDESMOF: Advanced Membrane Filters

    Pl: Roberto Fernandez (BC Materials)

    Funding Agency*: EU

    Ongoing: yes

  • Cáculos DFT, síntesis química y validación experimental de sistemas heterocíclicos con propiedades fotofísicas y biológicas optimizdas

    Pl: Fernando Cossío

    Funding Agency*: NAT

    Ongoing: yes

  • ESSENS: Early Stage Sensing of Fouling in Membrane Water Treatment

    Pl: Thomas Schäfer

    Funding Agency*: EU

    Ongoing: no

* INT - International EU - European NAT - National RE - Regional


  • I. Rivilla et al., Fluorescent bicolor sensor for low-background neutrinoless double beta decay experiments, Nature, 2020

  • E. Limousin et al., Linking Film Structure And Mechanical Properties In Nanocomposite Films Formed From Dispersions Of Cellulose Nanocrystals And Acrylic Latexes, 2020

  • M.A. Aboudzadeh et al, Blocking probe as a potential tool for detection of single nucleotide DNA mutations: design and performance, Nanoscale, 2017

  • I. Rivilla et al., Catalysis of a 1,3-dipolar reaction by distorted DNA incorporating a heterobimetallic platinum(II) and copper(II) complex, Chemical Science, 2017

  • M. Sanromán-Iglesias, Sensitivity Limit of Nanoparticle Biosensors in the Discrimination of Single Nucleotide Polymorphism, ACS Sensors, 2016

Research Lines


  • We explore the unique functional properties of nucleic acids (DNA and chemically modified DNA) in order to create flexible, versatile and stimuli-responsive DNA-polymer interfaces that have a superior detection or separation capacity compared to existing materials. Although nucleic acids are primarily associated with storing genetic information, they can in fact act as highly robust and versatile building blocks for advanced hybrid materials. These hybrid materials find their applications in the bio/pharmaceutical/health area, safe water and fine chemicals production.
  • The research will focus on basic characterization of molecular interactions and the rational and systematic design of the advanced hybrid materials as well as their performance during applications in sensors (eg, for the detection of biomarkers or emerging contaminants in water) or membranes (eg, devices of controlled delivery and/or stimulus-responsive membranes). In this way it will combine the expertise of EICB/U Bordeaux (nucleic acids and characterization techniques ) and the chemical engineering and characterization expertise of the NBS Group.


  • Almost half of the production costs in the rapidly growing chiral chemicals market is spent on the downstream processing costs due challenging separation tasks and demanding levels of purification. Increasing the enantiomeric excess and efficiency of asymmetric catalysis routes would contribute to dramatically cut down overall process costs and make the overall production of chiral chemicals significantly more sustainable.
  • DNA-based asymmetric catalysis has been shown to boost enantioselective reactions due to the unique chiral structure of nucleic acids. Yet, the tremendous potential of DNA-based catalysis is currently limited by using nucleic acids in their canonical (aqueous) solvation environment.
  • We will use deoxyribonucleic acids (DNA) as versatile, flexible and chiral building blocks and replace their canonical aqueous environment by tunable, synthetic and chiral non-conventional solvents. The DNA-catalyst will be integrated into membranes such as to yield a robust and continuous production system. The high degree of freedom of this system allows for a highly flexible adaption an optimization to required production conditions.

Cross-border Collaboration (if any)

The Nanobioseparations Group has been actively collaborating during the last years with Dr. Carmelo Di Primo (ORCID: 0000-0002-0509-8399) from the European Institute of Chemistry and Biology, University of Bordeaux (INSERM U1212-CNRS UMR 5320).  Carmelo Di Primo is an internationally highly recognized expert in nucleic acids and the thermodynamic characterization of their interactions and conformational changes by advanced surface-sensitive techniques. The collaboration has proven extremely important and fruitful for both of us as the expertise of Carmelo at EICB/U Bordeaux (molecular biology and characterization techniques) is highly complementary to ours (materials/engineering and characterization techniques).

We have been able to tighten our collaboration within a recently finished COST project (ARBRE-MOBIEU, “Between Atom and Cell”) and are currently collaborating in a project funded by EUSKAMPUS on the detection of SARS-CoV-2 fragments. We also have currently a FET-Open proposal (“FUNAMBULIST, PI: T.Schäfer) under evaluation. The proposal deals with groundbreaking strategies in the large-scale production of stereospecific chemicals using functional nucleic acids in non-conventional liquids supported by artificial intelligence.

Our mid-term aim is to create a “Molecular Interactions Platform” between U Bordeaux and UPV/EHU which would aim at providing to the research and industrial community a service to elucidate molecular interactions primarily at the bio/materials interface including techniques such as SPR, QCM-D and ITC. Such a service, which we already have presented as an idea to EUSKAMPUS, should be a standard in our region given the not only the high research activity in the field but also the many companies working in the bio/health/materials area. Unfortunately, such a service is currently not available although it would render crucial during the development of efficient and “intelligent” materials.

The interest in this Call is to strengthen our collaboration on the interface of bio/materials with a strong focus on applications and respective characterization techniques (similar to what has led our Group to creating the start-up “SURPHASE” which is has transferred fundamental science to an engineering application) in order to make a significant step forward to this joint platform with both a research and industry perspective.