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Power Science

Breakthrough in Electricity-Producing Microbe 177

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the devil-in-the-dark dept.
University of Massachusetts researchers have made a breakthrough with "Geobacter," a microbe that produces electric current from mud and wastewater. A conservative estimate puts the energy output increase at eight times that of the original organism, potentially allowing applications far beyond that of extracting electricity from mud. "Now, planning can move forward to design microbial fuel cells that convert waste water and renewable biomass to electricity, treat a single home's waste while producing localized power (especially attractive in developing countries), power mobile electronics, vehicles and implanted medical devices, and drive bioremediation of contaminated environments."
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Breakthrough in Electricity-Producing Microbe

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 03, 2009 @01:50PM (#28930431)

    ...welcome our new shit-eating overlords?

    • by CorporateSuit (1319461) on Monday August 03, 2009 @02:00PM (#28930593)
      We're talking about a microbe that can turn bullshit into electricity? I suppose this is the one way that Congress will give power back to the people....
      • Re:I, for one... (Score:5, Informative)

        by reverseengineer (580922) on Monday August 03, 2009 @02:14PM (#28930793)
        Well, this bacterium was originally discovered feeding off the muck at the bottom of the Potomac River. Make of that what you will....
      • by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 03, 2009 @02:30PM (#28931043)

        We're talking about a microbe that can turn bullshit into electricity?

        Yep. Think about it: This site alone gives as much back as it takes. Sites like Infowars and Freep suddenly become self-sustaining generators. Fox News reduces its carbon footprint to near-zero levels!

      • Especially since I have none. Alas, good job!
    • Re:I, for one... (Score:5, Interesting)

      by JordanL (886154) <jordan.ledoux@[ ]il.com ['gma' in gap]> on Monday August 03, 2009 @02:34PM (#28931113) Homepage
      You bring up a good point. This technology simply liberates the stored energy in feces, which is itself processed from the stored energy in plants.

      I'm always amazed at how little variation there really is in energy production. Really there are only two sources of energy here on earth:

      -Solar
      -Nuclear

      Even geothermal is powered by the heat of the earth's core, which is itself powered by radioactivity. (I guess one could argue that the radioactive elements were formed in a star, making them solar as well, but that's a bit too far for me.)
      • by notaspy (457709)

        Solar = Nuclear

        "Really there are only two sources of energy here on earth:

        -Solar
        -Nuclear

        Even geothermal is powered by the heat of the earth's core, which is itself powered by radioactivity. (I guess one could argue that the radioactive elements were formed in a star, making them solar as well, but that's a bit too far for me.)"

        • by bugnuts (94678)

          Solar = Nuclear

          Technically yes, but not in the context here.

          Earth absorbs a crapton of energy from solar, which is used by plants to power conversions of carbon and other nutrients. You can release that energy, which was original derived from the sun. The easiest example is to burn wood... the tree used carbon matter and CO2, and when you burn it the energy is released, it is returned for another tree to use. To use it requires more energy.

          As far as nuclear, I guess he's talking about the ability to produce energy from

      • by Chris Burke (6130)

        Even geothermal is powered by the heat of the earth's core, which is itself powered by radioactivity.

        Well, and by the original formation of the earth (essentially gravitational potential energy of the dust and rocks that accreted and formed earth, plus later impacts, turned into heat).

        Not that adding "Formation of the solar system" as another source of energy really adds much to the mix! It is pretty amazing when you think about it.

        • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

          by TTURabble (1164837)
          Well if you broke it down completely, energy is never created or destroyed, it only changes states. So all the energy that will ever exist was created at the beginning of the universe and is simply stored in different states.

          And all energy is atomic energy, the difference comes in how we decide to extract that energy.
          • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

            by isama (1537121)
            Then we would also have to take into account that matter is also a form of energy :)
          • by superwiz (655733)

            energy is never created or destroyed

            oh? i think a certain german disagreed.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by amoeba1911 (978485)
        Generalize a little more and say everything in the whole universe has only one source of energy:

        Nuclear
        • by j-stroy (640921)
          I disagree, all this energy latent in the structure of the universe came from something beyond nuclear (brane theory, etc)

          ---
          young man, its turtles all the way down!
      • by b4upoo (166390)

        One could also argue that solar power is derived from a nuclear reaction within the sun.

      • Re:I, for one... (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Hortensia Patel (101296) on Monday August 03, 2009 @04:29PM (#28932713)

        Tidal?

      • Under which of those two categories do tidal forces fall?
      • I'm always amazed at how little variation there really is in energy production. Really there are only two sources of energy here on earth:

        -Solar
        -Nuclear

        Third is inertial: Tidal power, which comes from slowing the Earth's rotation. Some of the energy goes into raising the moon's orbit (or the Earth/Moon system's orbit around the sun) and the rest moves water and air in ways that can be tapped.

    • Won't they be more like underlings?

      I know: When I have such a thing near my house, I will go outside, yell "Eat shit, you stinkin' microbes!", bang a stick on the container, watch the neighbor kids run away in terror. ^^

    • Now I understand what was in the thick goo everyone was sleeping in in "The Matrix!"
    • by kheldan (1460303)
      Haha.
      Now go back to 4chan where you belong, /b/tard..
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by mldi (1598123)

      ...welcome our new shit-eating overlords?

      ...different from our politician overlords how?

  • by grasshoppa (657393) <skennedyNO@SPAMtpno-co.org> on Monday August 03, 2009 @01:53PM (#28930473) Homepage

    - This story stinks!
    - The OP is full of shit!
    - I get shitty service on my phone now!

    I'll show myself out.

  • a microbe that produces electric current from mud? This will increase the long dormant demand for mud pies! Need to re-charge your ipod? Mudpie! Scared that taser is going to kill the suspect? Throw a mud-pie! Now with electro-conductive pie places!
  • I must tour a rural village powered by electric mud. I'll just hop in my flying car and be right over.

    Do I even need to go into What Could Possibly Go Wrong mode when discussing the prospects of using electricity-generating bacteria to power medical devices implanted in your body?
    • Re:Fantastic (Score:5, Insightful)

      by socrplayr813 (1372733) on Monday August 03, 2009 @02:17PM (#28930847)

      As someone who helps to design and manufacture medical devices, I have no doubt that they could be made safely. That said, I doubt I'd be first in line to get one. I think even our current battery technology is sufficient for most implants. Of course, that doesn't mean we shouldn't strive to improve.

      If the technology works out, I do look forward to a home septic system that produces power for me AND saves me from tearing up my yard. (Wishful thinking, yes, but cool nonetheless.)

      Anyway, regardless of whether this technology becomes a commercial success, this kind of stuff could/will be very useful down the road. Great work.

      • by mcgrew (92797)

        I have no doubt that they could be made safely. That said, I doubt I'd be first in line to get one.

        I woudn't be the first in line to get any new medical devoce, unless it was the only thing that would keep me alive or being maimed. I thought long and hard before I got my Crystalens implant, as it was only approved in 2003 and I had it implanted in 2006. I still worry somewhat that some day its struts might break.

        • by fractoid (1076465)
          Wow. I want one of those. My mum has an implanted lens (not sure what type but I don't think it's variable-focus) and it looks freaking awesome when the light catches it in the right way; it's like the Terminator's eyes except flashing white instead of red. :P Of course, I'll probably wait until my natural short sight can't be corrected by continuous wear contact lenses first, just to give them a chance to iron out the long-term problems with 'em.
      • by Phat_Tony (661117) *
        "implanted medical devices"

        I don't get it. Who wants to inject mud into their veins?
      • What about a larger scale project where the sewage treatment plant produces enough electricity to be self sustaining?
      • by drinkypoo (153816)

        If the technology works out, I do look forward to a home septic system that produces power for me AND saves me from tearing up my yard.

        It's called a composting toilet and grey water system.

  • by michaelmalak (91262) <michael@michaelmalak.com> on Monday August 03, 2009 @01:57PM (#28930537) Homepage
    Obama calls for "regime change" in the Republic of Elbonia.
  • by wowbagger (69688) on Monday August 03, 2009 @01:59PM (#28930557) Homepage Journal

    And in East Elbonia, they are planning on dominating the world's energy market in 20 years....

  • . . . um, . . . renewable energy resource all these years . . .

  • by hypergreatthing (254983) on Monday August 03, 2009 @02:04PM (#28930651)

    Maybe it's time to evaluate 2 girls 1 cup for educational reasons...

    Then again maybe not

  • by Drakkenmensch (1255800) on Monday August 03, 2009 @02:08PM (#28930709)
    How should we name the unit to represent Joules Per Flush? I vote for the Crapper.
  • This is wonderful news. Ideas like these are the kind of things that turn energy into a free for all. Remember the water cycle? Any American was taught this process by at least middle school. IMHO creating an "Energy Cycle" is our ultimate goal here. Who knew a septic tank would end up back in style? Hook up a few power cables and whammo! Instant power station. Yes, I'm full of shit. I have the power.
  • by Mishotaki (957104) on Monday August 03, 2009 @02:12PM (#28930749)

    We don't have enough shit over here? we don't need electricity over here?

    Why can't we use that technology to make the water treatment plants produce electricity while they also treat our wastes?Â

    • by jerep (794296)

      over here people are full of shit, maybe we can make them useful, there are years and years worth of energy walking down the streets every day, running corporations and marketing.

      I wouldnt trust these microbes with our water, i dont want to get zapped if they end up in my tap water!

    • Seems valid enough, though I wonder if the sheer amount of waste at a large plant would make this setup hard to manage. It might simply make more sense to have decentralized handling of waste, akin to small communities where each house has its own septic system.

    • when something is targeted specifically at developing countries, it means that there are more expensive or infrastructure reliant solutions in the developed world that give more bang/buck. This shit generator is probably pointless if you have the capacity to run a nuke/wind/solar/coal power station.
  • If it could purify (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Coldeagle (624205) on Monday August 03, 2009 @02:14PM (#28930779)
    I'm curious if they might be able to combine this with another microbe or filtering system that would enable it to purify the water too. If they could, you could get an almost closed water system thus solving a lot of the water issues across the US. Or if it could desalinate water while producing power :)
  • Great.. (Score:4, Funny)

    by jerep (794296) on Monday August 03, 2009 @02:17PM (#28930849)

    soon we'll be purchasing dirt and instead of oil, declaring war against third world countries to steal their wastes, and those environmentalists are gonna whine about the smell.

  • So brown is the new green?
    • by WeblionX (675030)

      Mike Rowe's been saying that for a fair while. I bet he'll come out with his own version of these, though. "Mike Rowe's Microbes"

  • Except machines will be using humans for ... well... you know which way to make electricity.

    In-pod plumbing... it's gonna be big!

  • by Grond (15515) on Monday August 03, 2009 @02:31PM (#28931049) Homepage

    First, a citation to the published paper: Hana Yi, et al., Selection of a variant of Geobacter sulfurreducens with enhanced capacity for current production in microbial fuel cells, Biosensors and Bioelectronics, Volume 24, Issue 12, 15 August 2009, Pages 3498-3503.

    The extrapolated current density was 7.4 ± 0.1 A/m2. The individual fuel cells produced 14mA, which was sustained for 24 months.

    • by reverseengineer (580922) on Monday August 03, 2009 @02:41PM (#28931209)
      Here's the abstract from the paper (with some line breaks inserted for readability):

      Geobacter sulfurreducens produces current densities in microbial fuel cells that are among the highest known for pure cultures. The possibility of adapting this organism to produce even higher current densities was evaluated. A system in which a graphite anode was poised at 400 mV (versus Ag/AgCl) was inoculated with the wild-type strain of G. sulfurreducens, strain DL-1. An isolate, designated strain KN400, was recovered from the biofilm after 5 months of growth on the electrode. KN400 was much more effective in current production than strain DL-1. This was apparent with anodes poised at 400 mV, as well as in systems run in true fuel cell mode. KN400 had current (7.6 A/m2) and power (3.9 W/m2) densities that respectively were substantially higher than those of DL1 (1.4 A/m2 and 0.5 W/m2).

      On a per cell basis KN400 was more effective in current production than DL1, requiring thinner biofilms to make equivalent current. The enhanced capacity for current production in KN400 was associated with a greater abundance of electrically conductive microbial nanowires than DL1 and lower internal resistance (0.015 versus 0.130 /m2) and mass transfer limitation in KN400 fuel cells. KN400 produced flagella, whereas DL1 does not. Surprisingly, KN400 had much less outer-surface c-type cytochromes than DL1. KN400 also had a greater propensity to form biofilms on glass or graphite than DL1, even when growing with the soluble electron acceptor, fumarate.

      These results demonstrate that it is possible to enhance the ability of microorganisms to electrochemically interact with electrodes with the appropriate selective pressure and that improved current production is associated with clear differences in the properties of the outer surface of the cell that may provide insights into the mechanisms for microbe-electrode interactions.

  • 1. you get a tingly feeling every time you sit on the toilet, and its not from your feet falling asleep

    2. if your septic tank overflows you're in danger of electrocuting the family dog

    3. you also have to be careful where you piss, or you'll know what its like to urinate on the third rail of light rail system

  • Mr Fusion (Score:3, Funny)

    by prell (584580) on Monday August 03, 2009 @02:34PM (#28931095) Homepage
  • Every now and then we read about some new energy producing mean, it just makes me wonder... Can anyone even begin to imagine what would a society based on these technologies look like? They are very diverse and seem to cover ever encreasing aspects of our lives. Each one could take care of a bit of our smaller needs and nuclear energy could be the only massive one, providing for larger needs in a world with ever more energy-efficient technologies. What if through technology we can reach a society with no mo
  • by theJML (911853) on Monday August 03, 2009 @02:42PM (#28931217) Homepage

    ..."Dennis! There's some Lovely Filth down here!"...

  • ... what's to stop the microbes from evolving/adapting BACK to the lower output when they're placed in a rich environment (fuel cell, whatever) again? Stupid researchers... they forget that mutation doesn't only occur when they want it to occur and not only in the fashion they desire.

    • by socrplayr813 (1372733) on Monday August 03, 2009 @03:06PM (#28931527)

      ... what's to stop the microbes from evolving/adapting BACK to the lower output when they're placed in a rich environment (fuel cell, whatever) again? Stupid researchers... they forget that mutation doesn't only occur when they want it to occur and not only in the fashion they desire.

      [sarcasm]You're right. All this research is useless. We should just give up.[/sarcasm]

      I feel like I say this constantly, but I just can't help myself here...

      Just because you don't see a benefit doesn't mean there isn't one. Just because the technology doesn't instantly save humanity from all of its mistakes doesn't mean it's not worthwhile. Even research that never directly leads to a useful commercial application is helpful. Tons of advances have come sideways out of unrelated research. (Also, knowledge for the sake of knowledge is a choice many scientists make and there's nothing wrong with it.)

      If you can't see past your own life, please get away from mine.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Belial6 (794905)
      The same thing that prevents house dogs from evolving back to wolves, and farm turkeys from evolving smaller breasts.
      • The same thing that prevents house dogs from evolving back to wolves, and farm turkeys from evolving smaller breasts.

        Silicone?

    • by reverseengineer (580922) on Monday August 03, 2009 @04:58PM (#28933117)
      According to the paper, "KN400 (the mutant strain) also had a greater propensity to form biofilms on glass or graphite than DL1 (the wild-type), even when growing with the soluble electron acceptor, fumarate." In a fuel-cell enviroment there would be significant survival advantages to forming a biofilm. In order to run its metabolic processes, this intriguing organism needs a terminal electron acceptor in its enviroment. Instead of bringing the acceptor inside (as we do with our terminal electron acceptor, oxygen), Geobacter uses its electrically conductive pili to send its electrons outside.

      An electrode would really be the ideal living enviroment for this organism- it would act as a near-infinite sink for electrons. The mutant strain KN400 seems to be better adapted to living on an electrode, so within the constraints of a fuel-cell environment, the mutant strain should outcompete against the wild strain. In the organism's native enviroment, mud in a riverbed, I'd suspect the wild-type would be more successful, since it does not prefer to anchor itself in a biofilm. In mud, the organism would be better served on the move, making use of metal oxides as it finds them, rather than being tied to one spot and risking depletion (essentially asphyxiating).

      However, in the fuel cell, selection pressure will favor organisms that stick to the electrodes, maximize electron conduction, and minimize internal resistance. Even without the "pushback" current used to drive adaptation of these characteristics, my guess is that the fitness advantages they provide will cause them to be passed on to future generations.
      • by Magada (741361)

        It will be interesting to watch, if that happens, because then you'd have the reverse phenomenon to what happens now - batteries (well, fuel cells really) would get better, not worse with age.

  • by jmorris42 (1458) * <jmorris@[ ]u.org ['bea' in gap]> on Monday August 03, 2009 @03:06PM (#28931533)

    We get at least one of these stories a week on /. A story about some wonderful new potential source of "Free" Green Energy. Of course none are anywhere near production and nobody sane even talks about them producing energy at costs per KWK anywhere near current technology. But as long as new miracle tech can be waved in front of folks the need to face up to our current reality can be postponed by wishful thinking.

    Reality:

    1. No "Alternate" Energy source is believed to be capable of producing a sizable fraction of our current energy needs at competitive rates in the next twenty years. Wind and solar are only popular in areas with massive government subsidy because they aren't cost effective on their own. And any attempt to scale either to carry large percentages of the grid will only make those issues clear and reveal more problems. Hydrogen is itself 'clean' but none of the sources are easy to tap in a clean way with one politically unacceptable (Nuke power) exception. Biofuels create egoboo for greens in small quantities but lead to famine when scaled up.

    2. To obtain oil we are sending a large share of our wealth to people who are using it to destroy our civilization. This is a very bad idea.

    3. The greens might have a point with the whole AGW thing. And even if their math and models are all wet it is likely we are having SOME effect somewhere with all this drilling, extracting and burning of fossil fuels.

    4. Fusion has been thirty years off for the last forty years.

    We really need to have a hard look at those realities, stop dreaming of a painless solution and start looking at options that might actually be able to help in the next twenty years.

    • by PeterChenoweth (603694) on Monday August 03, 2009 @03:44PM (#28932031)
      I agree.

      But then again, had /. existed in the 1930's, we would likely have been commenting on the crazy stories about 'Atomic' power being possible. Almost certainly, there would be comments that it's simply a fantasy that won't work. A work of fiction. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was just a book. Just as we'd now maybe say, "Hey, didn't they do that in the Matrix|Star Wars|Star Trek?"

      Within 10 years of that fictional /. article, we had figured out how to make an atomic bomb, and 10 years after that the USS Nautilus was built - the first nuclear powered ship. And just a couple of years later, the first public-power-generating nuclear plants came online. If you take all of that, and wrote a story published in the early 30's claiming that this would happen in the next 20-25 years, it would have been as fantastic as anything we can dream up here regarding electricity-producing algae or flying cars or living on the moon.

      I totally agree that there's probably no way we're going to get any significant amount of our energy needs from electricity-producing microbes. Just as we probably won't from solar, wind, or waves alone. But it's just another piece of the puzzle for the future. Oil & coal aren't going away anytime soon, but it is important that we explore other options to push the frontier of what is possible. You never know, there's always a chance that this will be "the next big thing". It's worth at least reading about.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by timeOday (582209)
      A completely generic comment that has nothing to do with the posted story. Read it. This is a scientific advance. Nowhere does it contain any green energy hype of the sort you are debunking.
      • by jmorris42 (1458) *

        > This is a scientific advance.

        Not in dispute. That it it currently useless as a mainstream energy source and will remain impractical also isn't in dispute. Efficiency would have to go up a LOT and ability to run without costly maintainance to make bio powered fuel cells practical for anything but niche applications.

        > Nowhere does it contain any green energy hype of the sort you are debunking.

        No I didn't actually click through to the story but assuming the quoted part on /. is from the article I rea

    • Polywell fusion's down to ten or twelve years.

  • We'll be reduced to batteries for our robot overlords.

  • There's just one parameter of interest-- how much power?

    One suspects it's not a lot.

    I can see biologists getting excited about picoamps and millivolts per square centimeter.

    But as a practical source of electricity, that would be much less practical and economical than the lemon, penny, and nickel battery.

    Even if they evolved to producing 1,000 times as much electricity, we could still be talking about nanoamps, millivolts, and picowatts.

    • If you Look at anukets link, you'll see

      KN400 was much more effective in current production than strain DL-1. This was apparent with anodes poised at -400 mV, as well as in systems run in true fuel cell mode. KN400 had current (7.6 A/m2) and power (3.9 W/m2) densities that respectively were substantially higher than those of DL1 (1.4 A/m2 and 0.5 W/m2)

      Somewhat higher than nano amps, it's a good jump forward, and to think thats from something that wouldn't be used anyway.

    • by reverseengineer (580922) on Monday August 03, 2009 @07:28PM (#28934511)
      In the abstract for the actual journal article, they report the outputs for their mutant strain as current 7.6 amps per square meter and power 3.9 watts per square meter. Which is to say about 0.76mA per square centimeter, so not a gigantic number, but more impressive than what the parent predicts. One important factor that would make power generation using these microbes more attractive is that you could put them in a fuel cell that has a tremendous surface area to volume ratio.

      Geobacter is an obligate anaerobe, so it does not require- indeed, cannot tolerate- access to the atmosphere, and it is not photosynthetic. You can buy carbon black, which makes a fine electrode, with a surface area to volume ratio of greater than 50 square meters per cubic centimeter. In the described experiment, they grew the bacterium on graphite, so carbon black should not pose an obstacle. A cubic meter of carbon black would have a surface area of about 50 square kilometers, but a mass of about 2 tons. An output of 3.9W/m^2 over 50 million square meters is 195 megawatts, which isn't shabby considering your input would be wastewater. Now, of course, that number is a wildly optimistic figure- good luck covering that much surface area with a bacterial biofilm- but it does suggest that you could produce enough power to say, make a wastewater treatment facility self-sufficient.
      • Thanks for the basic numbers. But your extrapolation is wildly like 10^10 times optimistic.

        A battery needs two electrodes. There's no way to take a cubic anything of carbon black and put electrodes around each particle, AND have an electrical connection to each particle, all insulated from the opposite electrode.

        Also running your proposed battery into a matched load would result in half the power being dissipated in the battery. 97.5 megawatts in one cubic meter is going to heat up in a millisecond and

  • Photos (Score:5, Informative)

    by anukit (690580) on Monday August 03, 2009 @05:00PM (#28933135)
    Some technical info and photos: http://www.geobacter.org/publications/19487117/ [geobacter.org]
  • I mean, the level of bacteria traditionally present in every student dorm - logical conclusion, no? No more power problems! :-)

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