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Running on Microbes – Developing Microbial Fuel Cells

January 14th, 2007 | No Comments | Posted in Uncategorized

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Running on Microbes – Developing Microbial Fuel Cells
From PhysOrg


1. USC College’s Ken Nealson leads a multidisciplinary team of biologists, chemists, earth scientists and engineers developing a microbial fuel cell capable of powering small devices that might include tiny surveillance planes and environmental sensors.
2. Geobiologist Kenneth Nealson leads a USC College-based effort to develop bacteria-powered fuel cells that could act as remote, portable power supplies for a multitude of purposes, ranging from remote sensors to tiny insect-like surveillance drones for use in combat zones.
3. In 2006, the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research awarded Nealson and his team a $4.5 million Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI) grant to take the microbial fuel cell from great idea to usable power source.
4. The bacteria at the heart of the USC microbial fuel cell is Shewanella oneidensis MR-1, a microbe. First discovered by Nealson, in addition to generating electricity, MR-1 and its relatives can “breathe” metal, clean up toxic residue in water and even keep brass, iron, copper and aluminum corrosion free.
5. One of the most exciting things about the project is that the microbes can use such a wide variety of fuels — ordinary milk would work, but so would honey or a dead fish — to make the current flow.
6. In an experimental project a simple battery was built with two different kinds of metal in a liquid medium, electrons flowing through a wire from one metal to the other. Without MR-1, the battery runs for a few days, and then runs down. But when researchers added MR-1 to this setup, creating a bacterial battery, the power steadily increased during the 90-day experiment. Much like what happens chemically in a regular battery, bacteria in fuel cells can strip electrons from organic material and produce an electric current.
7. Thanks to the team’s use of a combination of approaches, they have already made progress in kicking up energy production.
8. With some new parts -a better membrane and assembly that houses the membrane and electrodes – the fuel cell produced about 100 times more power.
9. Right now understanding just how these bacteria interact with the fuel cell anode to produce useful electric energy is the major challenge. Once this is understood, he expects that upping the electrical output of the fuel cells should be a straightforward bioengineering problem.
10. Nealson, along with Steven Finkel and Byung-Hong Kim, lead the search for biological and genetic solutions to the challenge.
11. In 2002, Nealson identified genes thought to be responsible for electrical production in MR-1.Nealson hopes that by understanding the biological mechanisms involved in the microbe’s electrical current production, he will be able to genetically engineer an MR-1 strain that will produce hundreds to thousands times the amount of energy of its forebears.
12. In another tack, the team has seen some rise in power output from changing the bacterial growth conditions in the fuel cell device.
13. A 2006 paper by Yuri Gorby of the J. Craig Venter Institute in San Diego and co-authored by Nealson revealed a network of living nanowires linking the bacteria in a kind of electrical grid. Nealson speculates that the network of nanowires, actually bacterial filaments called pili, offers a more efficient pathway for electrons traveling to the anode and thus a stronger current.
14. There is a focus on two strategies to boost the bug’s power. First, by studying ways to increase the survival time and growth for the MR-1 microbes living in the fuel cell. Second, by looking at ways to increase the electron output for each cell. 15. Another element of the team’s study will be to see if adding other bacteria to the mix can enhance the fuel cell performance — by breaking down waste, by using materials MR-1 can’t use, or by changing acidity or other parameters.
16. “Once we have an optimal cell, the engineers will start looking at how to make this a thousand times bigger or a thousand times smaller,”…
17. Paul Ronney, an astronaut and world authority on micro-scale power generation, will use techniques developed for his research on combustion with conventional fuels to understand the dynamics of the microbes living in the fuel cell.
18. Paul Ronney and fellow mechanical engineer Hai Wong, both of the Viterbi School of Engineering and co-investigators on the MURI project, will use data collected from the prototypes to build a mathematical model that will predict an optimal design for the microbial fuel cell.
19. The interdisciplinary team, which also includes geochemist Andreas Luttge of Rice University, provides an unparalleled perspective onto a scientific problem. “We have the big picture of what’s going on, as well as all of the details — the microbiology, genetics, electrochemistry, microscopy — all of it.”

Source: By Eva Emerson / Eric Mankin, USC College

Read the full article here

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