It might sound weird to use microbes as a source of energy, but actually it dates back to 1911, when scientist M. C. Potter produced electricity from the now-infamous E. coli bacteria. In 2009, Time magazine chose the research on geobacter, named “the electric microbe” for its capacity to act as a battery, as one of the best inventions of 2009. Now a team of researchers from Newcastle University, UK, and Yangzhou University, China, has taken it a step forward, by being able to double the output of a “bacteria battery” using a selection of different bacteria found in a British river.
The researchers tested a wide range of microbes found in the river Wear, in North East England, and combined them into a Microbial Fuel Cell (MFC). Until now they were able to produce 105 watts of energy; with the new combination, they reach 200 watts, enough to power small devices. What was more surprising, though, was that one of the bacteria selected, the Bacillus Stratosphericus, is usually found in the Space, not in a river estuary.
“This is the first time individual microbes have been studied and selected in this way,” says Grant Burgess, professor at Newcastle University and co-author of the study. “Finding B. stratosphericus was quite a surprise but what it demonstrates is the potential of this technique for the future – there are billions of microbes out there with the potential to generate power.”
Will bacteria be the energy of the future? “We have got used to seeing road signs powered by small solar cells,” declares Burgess. “In the same way, an MFC could potentially be portable and just need immersing in water or sticking in soil for the bacterial process to start.”
Photo: Wikipedia Commons
Zhang J, Zhang E, Scott K, & Burgess JG (2012). Enhanced Electricity Production by Use of Reconstituted Artificial Consortia of Estuarine Bacteria Grown as Biofilms. Environmental science & technology PMID: 22352455