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Power Generating Microbes
Jamais Cascio, 8 Jun 05

Bacteria that can clean up industrial wastes are not new. Bacteria that can generate electricity by feeding on sugars in wastewater are not new. But microbiologists at this week's General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology report finding a species of bacteria able to both remediate some pretty nasty industrial chemicals and produce usable amounts of electricity while doing so.

Desulfitobacterium is a recently-discovered genus of "anaerobic dehalogenating" bacteria, meaning they are able to neutralize a variety of chlorinated compounds, solvents and even PCBs. But Charles Milliken and Harold May of the Medical University of South Carolina have found that Desulfitobacterium has an additional useful property: it can generate electricity, and do so by consuming a wide variety of substances:

“The bacteria are capable of continuously generating electricity at levels that could be used to operate small electronic devices. As long as the bacteria are fed fuel they are able to produce electricity 24 hours a day [...] These bacteria are very diverse in their metabolic capabilities, including the food that they can consume. That means that these bacteria can convert a large number of different food sources into electricity,” says Milliken. “The technology could be used to assist in the reclamation of wastewaters, thereby resulting in the removal of waste and generation of electricity.”

The summary of the presentation at the ASM meeting goes into a bit more detail:

Strain DCB2 was tested for direct electrode reduction in a two-chamber fuel cell equipped with graphite electrodes. Electricity generation was dependent upon growth of the bacterium on the surface of the anode and was sustained after repeated exchange of the medium in the anode chamber without the addition of an exogenous electron carrier. Yeast extract, ethanol or formate served as a fuel source with power densities exceeding 20 mW per m2 of the anode surface. Recovery of electrons was 95% with formate used as fuel.

In addition, as the bacteria are spore-forming, under adverse environmental conditions, rather than simply dying, they can go dormant.

This is not an early indicator of a scenario of all of the world's power coming from the bubbling microbial froth. Rather, it's another indicator that we should stop thinking of electricity generation being separate and distinct from other activities. The bright green future will include power production as an inherent aspect of much of our material life; clearly, this will include wastewater cleanup and environmental remediation.

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Posted by: anonymous pedant on 8 Jun 05

Whoops. Fixed.


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 8 Jun 05

Any word in the sphere about bioremediation or "nucleoremediation" (?) of nuclear waste? (Just discovered WC through Omidyar, thanks Jamais.)

Posted by: David Alan Foster on 9 Jun 05

Any word in the sphere about bioremediation or "nucleoremediation" (?) of nuclear waste? (Just discovered WC through Omidyar, thanks Jamais.)

Posted by: David Alan Foster on 9 Jun 05

Another reminder that imagination is more important than knowledge. We will only find out about such breath-taking capabilities of the biosphere by allowing ourselves to remain open to how much we just don't know.

Posted by: Randy Barron on 9 Jun 05



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