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Bacteria As Fuel Cells? 122

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the lazy-bacteria-just-needs-training dept.
KantIsDead writes "MIT's Tech Review is running an interview with Boston University Bioengineer Tim Gardner about the possibility of using bacteria to produce electricity. If fuel cells running off sugar are nearly here, alcohol-powered robots cannot be far." From the article: "While typical fuel cells use hydrogen as fuel, separating out electrons to create electricity, bacteria can use a wide variety of nutrients as fuel. Some species, such as Shewanella oneidensis and Rhodoferax ferrireducens, turn these nutrients directly into electrons. Indeed, scientists have already created experimental microbial fuel cells that can run off glucose and sewage. Although these microscopic organisms are remarkably efficient at producing energy, they don't make enough of it for practical applications."
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Bacteria As Fuel Cells?

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  • by eln (21727) on Wednesday May 24, 2006 @06:28PM (#15397867) Homepage
    Have they tried feeding them Taco Bell?
  • My dreams of having a bender robot as a friend may soon come true.
  • by rrkap (634128) on Wednesday May 24, 2006 @06:31PM (#15397885) Homepage
    Alcohol powered robots can bite my shiny metal ass!
  • by ChrisGilliard (913445) <christopher,gilliard&gmail,com> on Wednesday May 24, 2006 @06:31PM (#15397889) Homepage
    Couldn't this be considered somehow as animal cruelty?
    • by Tackhead (54550) on Wednesday May 24, 2006 @06:34PM (#15397897)
      > Couldn't this be considered somehow as animal cruelty?

      Naw, the only thing we've established is that the poster is an invertebrate punster. So slug him!

    • Couldn't this be considered somehow as animal cruelty?

            Considering bacteria belong to the kingdom Monera and not Animalia, I doubt that.
    • Couldn't this be considered somehow as animal cruelty?

      Actually, I was just talking with my Primary Investigator (PI) about that, how in studies of bacteria and fruit flies and even worms (like c.elegans, my fave) we get away with stuff that people would be protesting about if we did it to monkeys, dogs, or cats, and even if it happened to mice.

      Mind you, when you have a lifespan measured in hours, the concept of premature death due to cancer just isn't the same thing.

      "Martha, they're experimenting on us agai
      • I was just talking with my Primary Investigator (PI) about that, how in studies of bacteria and fruit flies and even worms (like c.elegans, my fave) we get away with stuff that people would be protesting about if we did it to monkeys, dogs, or cats, and even if it happened to mice.

        ...or to humans, for that matter. The relevant distinction between bacteria, fruit flies, and tiny nematodes on one hand, and monkeys, mice, dogs, cats, and naked apes on the other, being a complex nervous system leading to a

    • Nice try, but you still have to go wash your hands before you can come to the dinner table.

      KFG
  • Can someone explain? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by jenny_uk (976951) on Wednesday May 24, 2006 @06:32PM (#15397890)
    How exactly do you take full atomic structures and "turn these nutrients directly into electrons"? Even if you were able to release the electrons from the atoms the whole material remains, neutrally charged does it not?
    • by mishmash (585101) on Wednesday May 24, 2006 @07:01PM (#15398038) Homepage

      Take glucose - perhaps produced by a bacteria, or as also mentioned in the article available in the human blood stream and using a glucose oxidase enzyme - oxidise it - take electrons from it, you do this on the surface of an electrode at one end of the circuit - at the other end you have another electrode coated with another enzyme on that uses electrons to reduce someting - such as oxygen to water. With oxidation at one end and reduction at the other you have electrons flowing between them.

      A paper describing doing this - but not using real human blood [acs.org] (why doesn't someone get on and do that - has the human race lost the spirit of development??)

      Why use bacteria and not just enzymes? One answer maybe that enzymes need a specific substrate, some bacteria might be less choosey? An enzyme's only a catalyst why not use "chemical" catalysts like conventional fuel cells?

      As for the biology major's worry that bacteria will lose the genetic modifications over time - yes that will happen - as the modifications that make them better for the purpose of making electricity will make them less good at simply multiplying - so loosing the extra function will give them an advantage which will be naturally selected for - so those bacteria will take over the culture. The solution's - you'll just not grow these things indefinatly - you'll have get a fresh culture of them regularly.
      • (why doesn't someone get on and do that - has the human race lost the spirit of development??)

        yes
      • The oil companies already bleeding me dry. Now I can use my own blood.
      • . . .you'll have get a fresh culture of them regularly.

        I do, that's the problem.

        KFG
      • As for the biology major's worry that bacteria will lose the genetic modifications over time - yes that will happen - as the modifications that make them better for the purpose of making electricity will make them less good at simply multiplying - so loosing the extra function will give them an advantage which will be naturally selected for - so those bacteria will take over the culture.

        How about a mechanical setup inside the fuel cell that allows better access to the input food the better your electrical

      • Why use bacteria and not just enzymes?

        The great thing about using the whole bacterium is that then it produces whatever enzymes it needs from the same stuff you feed it with. This cuts out the very expensive process of manufacturing the enzymes yourself.
    • Well, your body and that of every other living thing on the planet does it all the time. These bacteria just manage to spit the extra electrons out so we can use them for our nefarious purposes.
  • I am more impressed (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Psionicist (561330) on Wednesday May 24, 2006 @06:34PM (#15397898)

    I am more impressed with that Montreal kid who did something similiar:

    http://www.wired.com/news/technology/0,70882-0.htm l?tw=wn_index_12 [wired.com] A 16-year-old high school student has invented a new way of producing electricity by harnessing the brawny power of bacteria.

    Kartik Madiraju, an 11th-grader from Montreal, was able to generate about half the voltage of a normal AA battery with a fifth of an ounce of naturally occurring magnetic bacteria. And the bacteria kept pumping current for 48 hours nonstop.
    • by ceoyoyo (59147)
      I read that article and it seems kind of shady... they're saying he's invented a clean source of energy but it sounds more like he made a very inefficient generator. Basically the bacteria are like little magnets so if you make them spin they'll produce a spinning magnetic field. If you then let the field lines cut through a coil a current will be generated. Which is exactly like a generator except using magnetic material surrounded by bacteria instead of just straight magnetic material.

      But how do you ge
  • by Itninja (937614) on Wednesday May 24, 2006 @06:37PM (#15397911) Homepage
    "alcohol-powered"
    "glucose and sewage"

    The future will be full of cars that only exaust water....and fueling stations brimming with switch-grass, corn-mash, stale beer, human feces, and the occasional Rhodoferax ferrireducens bateria. And I thought horses smelled bad....
  • Mutations (Score:5, Interesting)

    by yuckysocks (806608) on Wednesday May 24, 2006 @06:38PM (#15397923) Homepage Journal
    Ok, assume that in 3 years we find just the right bacteria we need, and can have big
    enough colonies of them to be useful. How do we stop them from just mutating into
    non-viable types of their former selves and corrupting the colony? Sure they would
    reproduce asexually and that would limit mutations compared to our dirty process
    with gametes and zygotes, but that small rate of mutation will definitely be amplified
    by the apparent fact that we'll need trillions of these bacteria to do anything large-scale.

    IAABM (I am a biology major)
    • by Dunbal (464142)
      Sure they would reproduce asexually and that would limit mutations compared to our dirty process
      with gametes and zygotes,


            Bacteria can reproduce sexually as well. There's no stopping the horny little bastards.

            If you provide an constant, optimum climate for your strain, however, there wouldn't be a great deal of evolutionary pressure forcing them to mutate into non-viable types.
      • I *think* he meant non-viable in terms of not being useful at generating fuel, not non-viable as in "not going to survive".

        For example, consider a mutation that was better at reproducing but not at all good at generating us electricity/fuel/whatever. It could rapidly "corrupt" the population.

      • by Kadin2048 (468275)
        If you provide an constant, optimum climate for your strain, however, there wouldn't be a great deal of evolutionary pressure forcing them to mutate into non-viable types.

        I'm not sure this is a good assumption. If the bacteria were a product of genetic engineering and not selective breeding in that environment, they might be easily overwhelmed by a mutant strain that was more suited to the environment, but less useful to us. For example, we might engineer bacteria that produce electricity, but do it at the
        • What if you built the battery in such so that producing electricity is the dominate strain.

          Best solution I could think off would be to divide the surface that the bacteria grow on into discrete areas maybe 1cm squared and monitor the current received from each square.

          Once a day, kill off everything on the area which produced the smallest current, maybe by heating the surface somehow.

          you would probably end up using more energy destorying bad areas than you would gain but it might extend the useful s
          • You don't have to actively kill them. Just stop feeding them. Make the food supply for each cell of the grid dependant on that grid's power output. If they stop generating, they die of starvation. That'll teach 'em.

            In fact it should even teach them to produce electricity as efficently as possible. Thus making them better over time, instead of worse.
    • Re:Mutations (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Kadin2048 (468275)
      I think what you'd want to do is probably have a supply of preserved "first generation" (or "zero generation") bacteria, and every once in a while sterilize the production tanks, kill off all the mutant bugs that have bred there over the interim period, and re-stock it with fresh stuff.

      Or just use a fresh starter of bacteria for each batch. That's basically what bakers do today with yeasts: in the past, a good bakery would have had a 'starter' filled with yeast, which they'd put a small piece of into each b
    • I would just split the colony into many smaller isolated colonies. If one becomes corrupted just throw it out and start over from another, non-corrupted, source.
    • by spineboy (22918) on Wednesday May 24, 2006 @07:06PM (#15398076) Journal
      Make the bacteria dependent on an added compound that is associated with the genes you want to keep. Use the lac operon as an example - add lactate and the gene switches on, but in our bacteria, it turns on a gene cascade that produces the enzymes that give us EtOH/electricity as well as another product that the bacteria needs to survive. If the bacteria kicks out the desired gene that we want, it also kicks out the compound that regulates its cell cycle, and it dies.

      It would be unlikely for the bacteria to spontaneously mutate out 2 genes at once, thereby subverting our design. Obviously bacteria, number in the billions, so it will be necessary to restock our fuel cell occasionally. Of course you could be clever and tie in a third gene that gives immunity to a toxic substance, so that non-desired mutated bacteria are killed off automatically.

    • Have more than one tank, evaluate the takes for stability, power production, and any other facters you like. Then kill off the problem tanks and restart them with the best tanks. Over time things will just keep getting better.
    • Re:Mutations (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Jerf (17166)
      What stops cows from mutating into something less optimal for humans?

      When (not if) it happens, we kill the results and don't let them breed.

      Why do you think it'll be any different with the bacteria? It's not as if all the bacteria in the world will be in one tank in one gigantic, completely inseperable pile.
      • Human beings control the mating stock. They choose the bulls that they want, and this keeps things under human control. You can't do that with bacteria. The idea of putting other important genes (resistance, etc) close to the 'on' switch for production is the best solution I've heard so far. It makes it that much harder to get rid of the crucial gene. But not impossible. You might still need a yearly cleaning.
        • Human beings control the mating stock.... You can't do that with bacteria.... You might still need a yearly cleaning.

          I don't think you're getting it; a "yearly cleaning" (the way you mean it) is "controlling the mating stock". There's no significant, practical difference between bacteria and cows at the abstraction level I'm speaking at.
    • Someone I know is trying to engineer bacteria to produce proteins via an alternative pathway of her own design. The idea is that she could control the amount of cellular resources the bacterium invests in producing proteins for its own reproduction, versus the amount it spends producing some economically useful target protein.

      Anyway, when she turns on a particular gene that shuts down the bacteria's ability to produce proteins via the usual pathway, it takes less than twenty four hours before her bacterial
    • How do we stop them from just mutating into
      non-viable types of their former selves and corrupting the colony?


      That's nothing! What happens when they mutate enough that they work out how to use us to generate electricity for them! It'll be like watching another sequel to The Matrix!

      In Soviet Russia, bacteria generates electricity from YOU!
  • pffffft (Score:3, Funny)

    by MrSquirrel (976630) on Wednesday May 24, 2006 @06:39PM (#15397931)
    I invented this concept years ago. Step 1: Get my feet really worked up and sweaty while trapped in a tight shoe -- this spurs bacterial growth Step 2: Take off shoe and attack roommate with it -- roommate runs away from the stink, but he is roped onto a treadmill Step 3: The kinetic energy from the treadmill's movement is converted into electrical energy. I've just been working on creating a pocket sized roommate/treadmill, I was pretty darn close too.
  • Medical implants (Score:5, Interesting)

    by mangu (126918) on Wednesday May 24, 2006 @06:40PM (#15397933)
    TFA mentions powering medical implants as a possibility. Now, before anyone puts a bacteria powered implant inside me, I would like the answers to two questions:


    1) What if the bacteria escape from the implant and spread through my body?


    2) Could an antibiotic cure for an unrelated infection kill my artificial heart?

    • The answer to 1 is simple: you would turn into ... ELECTRIC MAN!!!
    • 1) What if the bacteria escape from the implant and spread through my body?

      Your immune system deals with them. If they're not optimized to reproduce in that environment, there wouldn't even be much risk of "spread". Not all bacterias thrive in the human body, after all.

      2) Could an antibiotic cure for an unrelated infection kill my artificial heart?

      Presumably your artificial heart's bacterial power source would not be exposed to your body, any more than today's artifical hearts press their battery leads rig
    • Even better. Think Big.

      Think of an implant that burns glucose in the blood and either remotely powers gadgets or keeps you extra warm. Just the burning calories part will make people rich. How about breast implants that will burn your calories for you to produce extra body heat?

      • That'd be great for people with diabetes too. Why can't they do somthing as simple as remove glucose from the bloodstream and burn calories. Heck, even if you have to raise someone's temperature a degree, it's better than glaucoma.
  • by GillBates0 (664202) on Wednesday May 24, 2006 @06:40PM (#15397936) Homepage Journal
    If fuel cells running off sugar are nearly here, alcohol-powered robots cannot be far.

    Neither can power plugs that you can directly plug into your ass [wikipedia.org] after ingesting healthy amounts of symbiotic bacteria.

  • It is only a short time before Bender Bending Rodriguez is made in some Mexican factory.

    (I am Bender. Please insert beer.)
  • Methane vs Hydrogen (Score:5, Interesting)

    by rufty_tufty (888596) on Wednesday May 24, 2006 @06:57PM (#15398018) Homepage
    see also:
    http://technocrat.net/d/2006/5/23/3693 [technocrat.net]

    bacteria + rotting biomass has long been able to produce energy.
    I can see this is new because it produces hydrogen as opposed to other gasses, but is a hydrogen economy that much better than a methane economy if it is based on biomass?
    Maybe in 50 years time?

    Ok I'll mod myself Troll now...
  • <<
    alcohol-powered robots cannot be far.
    >>

    I'm back, baby ! My friends and I were just in this bar, right around the corner !
    -- Bender

  • "...fuel cells that can run off glucose and sewage. Although these microscopic organisms are remarkably efficient at producing energy..."

    any fore-seeable problems with waste? i'm sure not *all* of the fueling material will be transformed...there oughta be some nasty by-product...

  • by Phat_Tony (661117) on Wednesday May 24, 2006 @07:31PM (#15398198)
    Ssshhhh!!!

    No one tell the computers, or they won't have any reason to keep us alive after they take over.

    Plus the bacteria won't need an elaborate VR to keep them occupied while generating electricity.

  • well, it might not be efficient for fuel cells, but you have to admit, using them to clean out clogged toilets could be a shocking experience, and maybe we could make glow-bulbs that float in raw sewage so it would be prettier ...
  • by Phat_Tony (661117) on Wednesday May 24, 2006 @07:47PM (#15398265)
    Although these microscopic organisms are remarkably efficient at producing energy, they don't make enough of it

    There's something wrong with this sentence. It sounds like they're saying that the bacteria perform an efficient conversion of the sugar energy into electrical energy, but that the problem is that bacteria can't be scaled effectively to produce significant amounts of power.

    There's a problem with the idea that bacteria don't scale. Bacteria are well known for their exponential growth curves. Give me a sufficently large petri dish with medium and a starter batch of bacteria, and I'll solve your scaling dilemma.

    If they are truly efficient, then there's no problem with bacteria not making enough power, as making more bacteria is trivial. However, I don't think it's likely they really are efficient. It seems highly unlikely bacteria would waste much energy on producing unused electricity, one might expect them, like most living things, to use most of their available energy growing, respirating, reproducing, and anything else that generally falls under the category of "surviving." Sure enough, later in the article comes:

    Gardner's team aims to harness the genetic control system to engineer bacteria that can produce energy more efficiently.

    Which makes me think that the problem with the current bacteria is efficiency, not scalability, as the first sentence implies. Perhaps by "efficient" he means that they don't produce a lot of waste heat or something, but for generating electricity, the definition of efficiency should be what percent of the energy they take in they put back out as electricity.

    • Some undergraduates I know who were working in Tim (Gardner, the guy in the article)'s lab pointed out that their little tabletop fuel cell powered by bacteria did work, but produced
      _microwatts_ of power.

      Tim's great (he gave an impassioned sermon on 'The End of Oil'... in his nonlinear dynamics class!) and he's in it for the long haul, but they're not there yet.

  • Sounds like Matrix to me
  • At last (Score:4, Funny)

    by Frightening (976489) on Wednesday May 24, 2006 @08:10PM (#15398343) Homepage
    The world has found a use for politicians...
  • What practical household use can a robot that consumes alcohol possibly have?
    I want a robot to get *me* a beer - if I have to give it one to get that to happen, it's no better than my loser friends.
  • by yabos (719499) on Wednesday May 24, 2006 @08:29PM (#15398417)
    Now you'll be asking people to piss in your gas tank!
  • by PSaltyDS (467134) on Wednesday May 24, 2006 @08:32PM (#15398426) Journal
    "...alcohol-powered robots cannot be far."

    Some of them work in the cubicle next to mine...

  • "MIT's Tech Review is running an interview with Boston University Bioengineer Tim Gardner about the possibility of using bacteria to produce electricity. If fuel cells running off sugar are nearly here, alcohol-powered robots cannot be far."

    .... And within ten years, food-powered humans?

    Geez, is it that humans are the only thing that shouldn't produce electricity to benefit? Walking, using a bicycle-generator, bio-energy from humans could be useful... Then again, being overweight sounds a lot more produ

    • Why? Well, don't expect those bikers to watch TV while doing it, if you want a positive output. (Ok, it can get better than that, but I think we're way off from being able to sustain one person's electricity usage from less than 24 hours of biking. And, yes, that is sort of a problem. If we are going to use mammals, we obviously need to use something that doesn't want any comfort.)

      Yes, this is from a Western perspective, but it's not very viable in developing countries either.

  • A lot of good microbial fuel cell work, including the discovery of the geobacter genus, has been done by D.R. Lovley and the group at UMass/Amherst [geobacter.org].

    In addition to their work on the microbial fuel cells [geobacter.org] themselves, they've also made the interesting discovery that the bacteria naturally form nanowires [geobacter.org] to transfer electrons outside the cell--something potentially [sorry!] useful to connect to an external electrode.
  • Shit... I've been running on a pure alcohol diet for 20 years! There's nothing new here.
  • What exactly are they going to do when these genetically engineered batteries end up in a landfill and start metabolizing trash? Are landfills the new electric plant or is this going to suck bigtime when these things run rampant. Introducing non-native lifeforms really has to be thought out a lot better than I've seen in the past. Think Australia, but globally.

    Septic tanks starting house fires. Garbage trucks that zap passers by. People infected by batteries. Cats and dogs living together, all the worst par
    • Sufficiently shielded, they won't break out even in the trash, besides, it sounds like they're special use. It's also likely that these bacteria will be suited for only a special enviroment, outside of which they'll quickly be overwhelmed by natural bacteria.

      As for the dump, anywhere that bacteria can survive, it will already be. We're not talking about engineering bacteria to eat stuff that natural varieties can't. I've read that the way dumps are constructed, not enough air gets to the materials, resul
      • I'm not so sure about bacteria not growing in a landfill. If you look around any dump that has part of it bulldozed over, you will see pipes coming out of the ground - these release the insane amount of methane produced by the rotting waste. Rot means biological consumption, ergo bacteria. There's enough methane in even a small landfill coming out on a routine basis to power a good-sized generator, so some sort of microbial lifeform most definitely thrives in that environment.

        The power generation via lan
  • Bacteria.... Hell, in my neck of town we just use water!

    Water Fuel Cell [waterfuelcell.org]
  • This sound like the plot of a horror sci-fi movie.

    Scientists genetically engineer bacteria so they can produce electricity from carbon on a grand scale. What could possibly go wrong when they escape and start mutating?
  • "If fuel cells running off sugar are nearly here, alcohol-powered robots cannot be far."
    I'm back, baby! [wikipedia.org].
  • Elijah Baley: according to our human tradition, the correct stanza is

    `Fifteen men on the dead man's chest'
    `You - ho - ho, and a bottle of rum!'

    R. Daneel Olivaw: this is mostly illogical, master; we all know that robots run on alcohol. So the correct stanza must have been:

    `Fifteen robots on the dead robot's chest'
    `You - ho - ho, and a bottle of rum!'

    (Later on, Elijah gave up trying to convince his robotic pal)

  • Some species, such as Shewanella oneidensis
    Hey I think I went to highschool with her.

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