Progress Continues in Using Bacteria to Generate Power

Research being presented this week at the 106th General Meeting of the (ASM) American Society for Microbiology in Orlando, Florida, furthers promising research into bacteria being used to create electricity, produce alternative fuels like ethanol and even boost the output of existing oil wells.

“Microbial fuel cells show promise for conversion of organic wastes and renewable biomass to electricity, but further optimization is required for most applications,” said Derek Lovley of the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Earlier this month, Lovley announced at a meeting that he and his colleagues were able to achieve a tenfold increase in electrical output by allowing the bacteria in microbial fuel cells to grow on biofilms on the electrodes of a fuel cell. Gemma Reguera, a researcher in Lovley’s lab, will present data identifying for the first time how these bacteria are able to transfer electrons through the biofilms to the electrodes. “Cells at a distance from the anode remained viable with no decrease in the efficiency of current production as the thickness of the biofilm increased. These results are surprising because Geobacter bacteria do not produce soluble molecules or ‘shuttles’ that could diffuse through the biofilm and transfer electrons from cells onto the anode,” said Reguera. Bacteria can not only produce alternative fuels, but could also aid in oil production by boosting output of existing wells. Michael McInerney and his colleagues at the University of Oklahoma will present research demonstrating the technical feasibility of using detergent-producing microorganisms to recover entrapped oil from oil reservoirs. “We now know that the microorganisms will work as intended in the oil reservoir. The next important question is whether our approach will recover entrapped oil economically. We saw an increase in oil production after our test, but we need to measure oil production more precisely to be certain,” says McInerney.
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