Superbugs from space offer new source of power

Feb 21, 2012

Bacteria normally found 30km above the earth have been identified as highly efficient generators of electricity.

Bacillus stratosphericus – a microbe commonly found in high concentrations in the stratosphere orbiting the earth with the satellites – is a key component of a new 'super' biofilm that has been engineered by a team of scientists from Newcastle University.

Isolating 75 different species of bacteria from the Wear Estuary, Country Durham, UK, the team tested the power-generation of each one using a Microbial Fuel Cell (MFC).

By selecting the best species of bacteria, a kind of microbial "pick and mix" they were able to create an artificial biofilm, doubling the electrical output of the MFC from 105 Watts per cubic metre to 200 Watts per cubic metre.

While still relatively low, this would be enough power to run an electric light and could provide a much needed power source in parts of the world without .

Among the 'super' bugs was B. Stratosphericus, a microbe normally found in the atmosphere but brought down to earth as a result of atmospheric cycling processes and isolated by the team from the bed of the River Wear.

Publishing their findings today in the American Chemical Society's Journal of Environmental Science and Technology, Grant Burgess, Professor of Marine Biotechnology at Newcastle University, said 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."

The use of microbes to generate electricity is not a new concept and has been used in the treatment of waste water and sewage plants.

Microbial Fuel Cells, which work in a similar way to a battery, use bacteria to convert organic compounds directly into electricity by a process known as bio-catalytic oxidation.

A biofilm – or 'slime' – coats the carbon electrodes of the MFC and as the feed, they produce electrons which pass into the electrodes and generate electricity.

Until now, the biofilm has been allowed to grow un-checked but this new study shows for the first time that by manipulating the biofilm you can significantly increase the electrical output of the fuel cell.

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

Newcastle University is recognised as a world-leader in fuel cell technology. Led by Professor Keith Scott, in the University's School of Chemical Engineering and Advanced Materials, the team played a key role in the development of a new lithium/air powered battery two years ago.

Professor Scott says this latest research can take the development of MFC's to a new level.

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More information: Enhanced electricity production by use of reconstituted artificial consortia of estuarine bacteria grown as biofilms. Jinwei Zhang, Enren Zhang, Keith Scott and Grant Burgess. ACS Journal of Environmental Science & Technology 2012. DOI:10.1021/es2020007

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User comments : 10

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StarGazer2011
1 / 5 (1) Feb 22, 2012
Ok while its beyond cool (no pun intended) that there are microbes found alongside satellites (is that an exaggeration?), but the idea that 200Wm-1 is ever going to be usefull is laughable. Even solar panels have more utility, and theyre not THAT great.
hyongx
not rated yet Feb 22, 2012
Right now I'm reading Andromeda Strain
and I think that these space bugs will kill us all. hahah.
super
not rated yet Feb 22, 2012
...the idea that 200Wm-1 is ever going to be usefull is laughable. Even solar panels have more utility...

Ok, but can solar panels create more of themselves?
StarGazer2011
1 / 5 (1) Feb 22, 2012
...the idea that 200Wm-1 is ever going to be usefull is laughable. Even solar panels have more utility...

Ok, but can solar panels create more of themselves?

neither can these...they cant make their own carbon electrodes or the MFC, and as they die they will likely foul the system. Its not like they are self organising or something in fact the research found "Until now, the biofilm has been allowed to grow un-checked but this new study shows for the first time that by manipulating the biofilm you can significantly increase the electrical output of the fuel cell."

This is purely a lab curiosity.
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Feb 22, 2012
200 Watts per cubic metre.

While still relatively low, this would be enough power to run an electric light and could provide a much needed power source in parts of the world without electricity.

Given todays LED lights this could power the lighting needs of an entire house. I light my entire bathroom well with 5.1Watts (3 1.7Watt LED bulbs)

but the idea that 200Wm-1 is ever going to be usefull is laughable.

The microbes are per cubic meter not per square meter.

The utility here is a different one: The bacteria need some sources of food, too, (other than light) to grow, multiply and do their electricity generation. This is ideal for wastewater treatment. wastewater is produced, anyhow. So why not pump it throughthese fuel cells and get power out of it while you're at it? Certainly easier to set up and maintain in developing countries than solar cells. (And with lower initial cost, to boot)
hyongx
not rated yet Feb 22, 2012
. wastewater is produced, anyhow. So why not pump it throughthese fuel cells and get power out of it while you're at it?

BRILLIANT!! Let's use our own excrement to power our electric tea kettles!!
Eikka
not rated yet Feb 22, 2012
Given todays LED lights this could power the lighting needs of an entire house. I light my entire bathroom well with 5.1Watts


LEDs produce less than 100 lm/watt still, unless you count very specific circumstances. Fluorescent lights would be a better option for energy efficiency and light quality. (Not CFL)

Problem being, that the performance figures for the LEDs available today are highly exaggerated. The manufacturer measures the light output from a cold chip at 1/10th the normal operating current, and slaps that on the brochure. If you dig down deeper, you may find correction factors for temperature and operating current, and their effect on the lifetime of the chips, but you have to figure it out yourself.

A single 60 Watt bulb gives out 800 lm with a perfect CRI of 100. The 5.1 Watts of LEDs gives maybe 300 lm with a CRI of 75 or worse with what's available in the stores today. Most of the time the "equivalents" aren't even close to what they claim.
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Feb 22, 2012
Fluorescent lights would be a better option for energy efficiency and light quality.

Possibly. But I don't like the mercury in them (nor the blueish tint). Getting rid of them at designated places isn't much of a problem over here - but in developing countries...

Then there is the drop-off in luminescence for fluorescent lights. I had some (which did good service for 10 years) but the drop-off was really noticeable after about 5 years or so. Not really an issue if you have them in 'little use' areas like cellars or hallways (as I did) but not something that is good where you work or in reading spaces (and I definitely don't want a fluorescent light in the bedroom)

A single 60 Watt bulb gives out 800 lm with a perfect CRI of 100. The 5.1 Watts of LEDs gives maybe 300 lm with a CRI of 75

The three 1.7W bulbs replaced three conventional 25W bulbs. Brightness is at least as good - if not better.
Isaacsname
not rated yet Feb 22, 2012
I'm curious, ..I know that metal embrittlement in oil and gas pipelines happen under these bio-films on the inner walls of the pipelines as the metal is slowly " broken down ".

Would it be possible these engineered bugs get loose and cause problems as opposed to being a solution ?

Hypothetically, of course.
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Feb 23, 2012
Since they are geared to provide electricity (i.e perform a fuction which costs them effort but brings them no gain) they are less well adapted to the environment than other organisms fighting for the same niche.
Organisms in nature can use all their efforts to defend and multiply - so they are, given an identical food supply, at an advantage.

These bioengineered organisms would either be killed outright or simply be outbred in short order.