Bacteria from the edge of space might one day be used to boost power in fuel cells.
At Newcastle University in the U.K., researchers found a species of bug called Bacillus stratosphericus. The bacteria likes the environment at about 18 miles above the surface of the Earth, an altitude usually reserved for spy planes. Some of the bacteria makes it to the ground, though, and the Newcastle group was able to find some in the River Wear, in northeastern England.
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Bacteria generate current as they eat, by releasing electrons during chemical reactions. Currently such bacteria are used in microbial fuel cells, and similar species are used in sewage treatment and microbial fuel cells are often sold as kits for science classes.
The researchers, led by Keith Scott, professor of electrochemical engineering, took the B. stratosphericus, along with 75 other varieties, and tested them for power generation. Many of these bacteria make biofilms (basically, slime). The film sits on the electrodes of a fuel cell and boosts the power output by more efficiently transmitting electrons. By mixing various species one can get a slime that maximizes that power. In this case the team got a microbial fuel cell to go from 105 Watts per cubic meter to 200 Watts.
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That isn't a lot of power, but in a place without any electricity at all it's enough to run a light bulb and even a small device or computer (laptops typically use less than 80 Watts).
Biofilms have been used before, but this was the first time anyone tried deliberately manipulating the mixture of bacteria, controlling the growth of the film and using it to increase fuel cell output. If microbial fuel cells can be made smaller, then they will go a long way to making small-scale sustainable energy a reality.
The work was published in the American Chemical Society's Journal of Environmental Science and Technology.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Alam Muntasir