Could Bacteria be a Sustainable Energy Solution?

If it were possible to form a circus featuring bacteria, it would give any show a run for its money. With so many remarkable biological characteristics and abilities, bacteria are a constant source of novel research discoveries, one of latest of which was published recently in the journal Chem.

 

As you may know, there exist what are known as electrogenic bacteria, which live in environments without oxygen, such as sediment in lakes or seas, and produce electric current as part of their metabolism. These microorganisms can breathe iron and mineral compounds like we breathe oxygen. However, as the Chem publication highlights, researchers have discovered a way to enable non-electrogenic bacteria to have the same current-producing abilities.

 

The researchers began by understanding that electrogenic bacteria’s unique ability to generate current comes from the proteins present in their cell membranes. Given that most bacteria lack these proteins, the team worked to find a molecule they could introduce successfully to non-electrogenic bacteria cell membranes to get them to conduct current. It turns out that a molecule the researchers built, called DFSO+, which has a core containing an iron atom, contained the qualities necessary to meet their objective. By adding a solution containing this key molecule to bacteria, the researchers report that it only took minutes for the molecule to join the bacteria’s cell membranes and enable the bacteria to start conducting current.

 

On one hand, this publication affirms what we already knew – science is awesome. But more importantly, it appears this technique could be applied to wastewater treatment and potentially to sustainable electricity generation. The idea would be to provide bacteria in a wastewater treatment tank with an electrode, allowing them to both clean the water and produce electricity. While the experimental molecule was able to stay in the bacteria’s membrane for weeks, researchers say the molecule would need some adjustments before being capable of long-term energy generation. With further insight about the biological processes of electrogenic bacteria, researchers hope even more biology-based electricity generation will come to fruition.