Research that Ranges from Pipelines to Proteins

Written by: Dean Maskevich,
Assistant Professor Cristiano Dias explaining the molecular structure of a dangerous compound that can form in undersea natural gas pipelines.

The research that Assistant Professor of Physics Cristiano Dias is pursuing has the potential to expand our knowledge of phenomena that can affect the creation of dangerous obstructions in undersea pipelines transporting natural gas and the formation of protein-based fibers in the brain related to diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Spanning disciplines and departments, it is work that underscores NJIT’s commitment to encouraging interdisciplinary investigation that promises not only to increase fundamental scientific knowledge, but which also offers the possibility of significant practical applications.

The Methanol Question

The undersea challenge arising at great depths, low temperatures and high pressures involves the formation of the solid compound methane clathrate. While this compound is abundantly present in the sea floor and may one day be another valuable energy source, it is a dangerous and costly problem for the gas industry when it forms inside of a pipeline.

As Dias explains, methane clathrate forms when methane molecules present in natural gas become trapped, or “caged” as he puts it, within a crystal water structure similar to ice. The “antifreeze” agent methanol is often used to prevent these potentially dangerous pipeline plugs. But under certain conditions, as some experiments have shown, methanol may actually promote the formation of the clathrate cages, which is a major reason why Dias has received a grant from the American Chemical Society to investigate this phenomenon and clarify the role of methanol.

“Atomic mechanisms underlying the formation of clathrates are not well understood,” Dias says, “Methanol may promote clathrate formation simply because it is a small molecule and can fit inside the cage. But whether this is really the case is not clear. We will be doing simulations at the atomic level to determine if methanol does exacerbate the problem in some circumstances or whether it is helpful in inhibiting the formation of cages under all conditions.”

Looking at Proteins

Dias, who joined the NJIT faculty in 2012, brings a diverse academic background to his current research. His undergraduate and graduate degrees are in physics, and he has had postdoctoral positions in applied math and biochemistry. In addition to his work with clathrate formation, this interdisciplinary perspective is evident in research he is conducting with NJIT colleagues Assistant Professor Yong l. Kim, Department of Chemistry and Environmental Science, and Assistant Professor Vivek A. Kumar, Department of Biomedical Engineering.

In these collaborations, Dias is exploring the biochemistry of proteins. More specifically, he is using sophisticated computer simulations to study the mechanisms of protein aggregation, or how proteins come together to form very long fibers. Such fibers are a main component of the plaque in the brains of people afflicted by Alzheimer’s disease.

“One of our main goals is to understand how the properties of these fibers change,” Dias says. “Proteins are made up of amino acids, so if you change the sequence of amino acids how do the properties of the proteins change? We’re also looking at influences that include temperature dependence, effects of pressure, and the acidity of surrounding solvents. What new properties do you get by varying these factors? 

“We’re modeling relevant processes from the atomic scale to the mesoscopic scale. We want to learn more about the interactions at each level, and why they can sometimes result in toxicity. If we can identify and understand the key toxic interactions, we may be able to counteract them therapeutically.”

But countering disease is not the only potential outcome of this research. Dias adds that greater biochemical and structural insight into proteins could advance the use of the long fibers he cites in biocompatible and biodegradable therapeutic devices and materials, including materials for the treatment of wounds.