Bacteria can Eat and Breathe Electricity

Bacteria can Eat and Breathe Electricity

Bacteria can Eat and Breathe Electricity
Image Credits: Research Gate

Researchers found some electricity-producing bacteria at the Yellowstone National Park.

A researching team from Washington State University conducted a test at the famous alkaline hot springs of the Yellowstone National Park. At the time of testing, the temperature of the hot spring was actually quite HOT (around 90o C). The latest report suggested that some bacteria were found in the water that has the ability to ‘eat’ and ‘breathe’ electricity. Certain species of bacteria that live in oxygen-deprived environments perform a unique type of breathing, which releases electrons. Simply put, these bacteria are able to produce electricity. Taking leads from this finding, NASA is hoping to use bioelectricity in future space missions as soon as the technology is developed further.

Identifying Bacteria

After a 7 mile walk through the paths of Heart Lake Geyser Basin Area, the team planted anodes in the water. The anodes were left for 32 days at the location with the team hoping to coax the organisms within. Under the supervision of Haluk Beyenal, Paul Hohenschuh (a Distinguished Professor in the Gene), and Linda Voiland (School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering), Phuc Ha, a Postdoctoral Researcher and Abdul Rehman Mohammed, a Student of WSU analyzed the electrodes. The team succeeded in capturing bacteria that ‘breathes’ electricity through solid carbon surface of the electrodes. Mohammed explained that in the following words:

“This was the first time such bacteria were collected in situ in an extreme environment like an alkaline hot spring. Temperatures in the springs ranged from about 110 to nearly 200 degrees Fahrenheit.”

A lot of bacteria display exotic behavior which includes being able to eat pollutants and being living electricity generators (Electron Managing Dynamics). The exact species of these bacteria has not been identified yet but researchers are trying hard to solve this riddle. They were living in an alkaline environment which is a natural battery. Theories suggest that the bacteria must have adapted to the surroundings to utilize the energy to its max potential. In order to collect bacteria in such extreme conditions, Mohammed invented a portable yet cheap potentiostat, which could control the submerged electrodes for long periods of time. Beyenal referred to that by saying,

“As these bacteria pass their electrons into metals or other solid surfaces, they can produce a stream of electricity that can be used for low-power applications. The natural conditions found in geothermal features such as hot springs are difficult to replicate in laboratory settings. So, we developed a new strategy to enrich heat-loving bacteria in their natural environment.”

Electricity in living things?

Most living organisms (humans included), use electrons in a complex chain of chemical reactions to produce the energy needed to power the body. As humans, we get our electrons from food sugar. Bacteria produce electricity by generating electrons in their cells and then transferring them across their cell membranes via tiny channels formed by surface proteins in a process known as Extracellular Electron Transfer (EET). Cullen Buie, a Mechanical Engineer, elaborated the importance of this discovery and said,

“There is recent work suggesting there might be a much broader range of bacteria that have [electricity-producing] properties. Thus, a tool that allows you to probe those organisms could be much more important than we thought. It’s not just a small handful of microbes that can do this.”

Bacteria Tech

Scientists are quite keen to study Bioelectricity as a power source these days. If this technology is refined, we may succeed in making self-charging, extremely efficient, tiny batteries in the future. Hence, the possibilities of bioelectricity are limitless. For instance, bacteria can be engineered to produce electricity (Electrogenic Bacteria). Similarly, the use of petroleum may be reduced in the future if efficient, renewable electricity is generated. From an environmental perspective, this is good news because fossil fuels are detrimental for the environment and these are unsustainable resources that are bound to run out, one day. As a result, an alternative is required in the form of pollution-free fuels.

Harvesting electricity with Microbial Fuel Cells (MFC) can efficiently convert organic wastes, renewable biomass, and even mud into electricity along with harmless by-products. Although the idea is quite exciting, MFC technology is not yet well developed to produce energy in substantial quantities. What has hindered turning theory into such practical reality, however, is that it is hard to determine the exact nature of a bacterium’s electrical properties. The cells are much smaller than mammalian ones and extremely difficult to grow in laboratory conditions. It may sound odd for now, but our future devices may have tiny critters inside as a power source.

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