Power From Space Superbugs
February 22, 2012

Power From Space Superbugs

Scientists from Newcastle University in the UK have incorporated the use of a microbe -- usually found high up in the Earth´s stratosphere -- and others found in the UK river estuary, to produce a new source of potential power for the world.

The scientists focused their attention on the river Wear estuary, Country Durham, UK to collect and test different bacteria to see which ones had the greatest power-potential. The microbial process is well-established in sewage treatment and water cleansing, but hasn´t been established as a significant supply of electricity.

They isolated 75 different species of bacteria, testing each one using a Microbial Fuel Cell (MFC). The team were able to create an artificial biofilm by selecting the best species from the mix, effectively doubling the electrical output of the MFC from 105 Watts per cubic meter to 200 Watts per cubic meter.

Bacillus stratosphericus -- commonly found 18 miles above Earth -- is a key component of the new ℠super´ biofilm that has been engineered to be a highly efficient power source. The microbe, although commonly found in the upper reaches, is also found on the ground when atmospheric cycling processes force it downward.

The study, published in the American Chemical Society´s Journal of Environmental Science and Technology, shows how a prolonged search of just one site can come up with a formidable range of relatively powerful microbes.

Grant Burgess, Professor of Marine Biotechnology at Newcastle, says the research demonstrated the “potential power of the technique.”

“What we have done is deliberately manipulate the microbial mix to engineer a biofilm that is more efficient at generating electricity,” he explains. “This is the first time individual microbes have been studied and selected in this way. Finding B. altitudinis 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.”

MFCs, which work similarly to batteries, use bacteria to convert organic compounds into electricity by a process known as bio-catalytic oxidation. A biofilm coats the carbon electrodes of the MFC and as the bacteria feed, they produce electrons which pass into the electrodes and generate electricity.

While still relatively low, the team said the power output would be enough to run an electric light and could provide much needed power to many parts of the world without electricity.

As well as B. Stratosphericus, other electricity-generating bugs in the mix were B. altitudinis -- another bug from the upper atmosphere -- and a new member of the phylum Bacteroidetes.

Three years ago, Time Magazine selected microbial power as one of contemporary science´s 50 most important inventions.

The new research brings the lead in MFC technology back to the part of the world where it first began more than a hundred years earlier. In 1911, Professor MC Potter of Durham University produced electricity from E. coli bacteria in his botany lab, which didn´t gain widespread notability until the 1930s.

Today, Newcastle University is recognized as a world leader in fuel cell technology. Led by professor Keith Scott, the team played a major role in the development of a new lithium/air powered battery two years ago.

Burgess said the microbial “pick and mix” samples are likely to be used in other areas as well, including the deep sea. His current lecture topics include snotworms, whose ability to decompose the bones of dead whales on the seafloor is attracting notable interest in the science community.


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