Space Bugs = Space Batteries?

It’s not exactly pulling power out of thin air, but scientists at Newcastle University are awfully close. They’re using bascillus stratosphericus – a strain of super-high altitude bacteria – to help create a biofilm that doubles the performance of microbial fuel cells. While that’s still a relatively low amount of power, it would be enough juice to power electric lightbulbs or small electronics (like a tablet or vehicle diagnostic computer), and could provide a much needed power source in situations where conventionally-sourced electricity is an impossibility.

By isolating 75 different species of bacteria from the Wear Estuary and selecting the best species of bacteria in a kind of microbial “pick and choose”, the scientists at Newcastle University were able to create a number of artificial biofilms. The one “super” bug in the selection was that B. stratosphericus, a microbe normally found in the upper 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, doubling the electrical output of the microfilm cells from 105 Watts per cubic meter to 200 Watts per cubic meter.

Grant Burgess, Professor of Marine Biotechnology at Newcastle University, explained that “What (the scientists) have done is deliberately manipulate the microbial mix to engineer a biofilm that is more efficient at generating electricity. This is the first time individual microbes have been studied and selected in this way. Finding B. stratosphericus 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 (electrical) power.”

The use of microbes to generate electricity is not a new concept. Microbial fuel cells (MFCs) have been used in the treatment of waste waters and sewage plants, working in a similar way to a battery that uses bacteria to convert organic compounds directly into electricity by a process known as bio-catalytic oxidation. This biofilm then coats the carbon electrodes of the MFCs. As the bacteria in the MFC feed, they produce electrons which pass into the electrodes – electricity!

According to ScienceDaily, this is the first time that manipulating biofilms can significantly increase the electrical output of fuel cells.

Source: Science Daily

Jo Borrás

I've been in the auto industry 1997, and write for a number of blogs in the IM network. You can also find me on Twitter, at my Volvo fansite, out on two wheels, or chasing my kids around Oak Park, IL.