Making Batteries From Bacteria

Lee Rannals for – Your Universe Online

Students at Germany’s University of Bielefeld are using the bacteria Escherichia coli to help construct a bio-battery.

Ten students have been spending their free time in the laboratory in order to construct the bio-battery as their entry into this year’s international Genetically Engineered Machine competition (iGEM) at MIT. The team is using the bacteria to convert glucose into energy.

“There is an ever-increasing demand for sources of alternative energy. The conservation of fossil fuels and the phasing out of nuclear energy in Germany have sped this process up,” said Thorben Meyer, a student who participated in the project. “It is not only large-scale electricity production which pollutes the environment, but also household batteries, which contain many harmful substances. Heavy metals and dangerous inorganic and organic electrolytes can be released into the environment by improper handling of batteries.”

Batteries like the one the Beilefeld students are developing work similarly to conventional batteries. These environmentally friendly microbial fuel cells (MFC) consists of two separate units, the anode and the cathode components, just like traditional batteries. However, these bio-batteries contain bacteria in the anode area instead of electrolytes. These bacteria break down substrates via their natural metabolic process.

During this process, electrons are produced that are delivered in an external loop to the cathode. The external circuit is then the one with the battery-powered application.

Bio-batteries could potentially be used in regions where there is a shortage of electricity, such as in developing countries or disaster areas. The batteries are not dependent on the weather either, making them advantageous energy sources compared to other forms of green energy like solar and wind power.

The students investigating the bacteria battery said it is possible to optimize the organism E. coli with a view to producing electricity more efficiently. The team has already been able to isolate various genes within the organism that serve to carry the electrons. They have also started to construct a suitable apparatus for the production of electricity.

iGEM participants are expected to find sponsors to cover competition fees, travel costs and accommodation. The competition has been hosted annually at MIT since 2004.

“Internationally, iGEM is the most important student competition in synthetic biology. Its form makes it unique in the world,” said Dr. Joern Kalinowski, who is supporting the Beilefeld students. “Synthetic biology is the latest development in the field of modern biology, and participation in the competition opens the students up to new perspectives. They also have the opportunity to prove themselves against young scientists from around the world.”

Last year a group from the University of Alberta won the iGEM competition after discovering a way to turn waste paper into valuable chemicals. The students developed plans for a startup biotech company called Upcycled Aromatics to turn paper that cannot be recycled into high-value specialty chemicals, including one key ingredient for the flu vaccine Tamiflu.