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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 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

  • 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.

  • Yes, so fast. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by copponex (13876) on Monday August 03, 2009 @02:28PM (#28931021) Homepage

    The Geobacter biofilm's "fortuitous" electron-transferring skill, the product of natural selection, suggested a pathway to Lovley - a way he might use selective pressure to increase its capacity to produce power. He and colleagues grew Geobacter as usual on a graphite electrode, providing acetate as food and allowing a colony to form the biologically active slime, or biofilm where electron transfer takes place across the nanowires. But for this new experiment they added a tiny, 400-millivolt "pushback" current in the electrode that forced Geobacter to press harder to get rid of its electrons.

    The result of providing a more challenging environment, within five short months, Lovley notes, was evolution of a beefed-up microorganism that can press at least eight times more electric current across the electrode than the original strain. âoeI'm really happy with this outcome," the microbiologist notes. "It's exceptionally fast feedback to us and a very satisfying result." He adds, "I'm still a little amazed that they make electricity, but I'm happy to be exploring how to harness that ability. I'm sure there'll be applications developed in the future that we canâ(TM)t even envision right now."

    That's halfway down in the article.

    You should try reading things before you try to debunk them. The environment will be created to get the most electricity out of the little microbes, and probably sealed off and not thrown in the dirt. I imagine there may even be filters in place where the waste comes into make sure that any natural predators are weakened or killed to continue allowing the organisms to thrive.

    And they have been studying this organism since 1987, and examining it for electrical production since 2002. I'm glad you're skeptical, but not glad that you're commenting on something you didn't even bother to read.

  • 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.

  • by jmorris42 (1458) * <jmorris@bea u . org> 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.
  • 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 timeOday (582209) on Monday August 03, 2009 @04:59PM (#28933121)
    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.
  • Re:I, for one... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by isama (1537121) on Monday August 03, 2009 @06:35PM (#28934087)
    Then we would also have to take into account that matter is also a form of energy :)

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