Engineers close in further on harnessing electricity from bacteria


EXCERPT: US engineers have reported progress in the quest to gather usable electricity from bacteria. Scientists know that certain species of bacteria living in oxygen-deprived environments (including the human gut) have evolved a unique form of breathing that involves excreting and pumping out electrons. In other words, they actually produce electricity that could, in theory, be used to power equipment or purify water.

And with this knowledge, researchers are working, for example, to design effective microbial fuel cells or generate power from organic waste. NASA is even investigating whether bacteria could power future space missions. What has hampered turning theory into such practical reality, however, is that it is hard to pin down 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.

[...] Now MIT engineers have developed a microfluidic technique that can quickly process small samples of bacteria and gauge a specific property that's highly correlated with bacteria's ability to produce electricity. They say that this property, known as polarizability, can be used to assess a bacteria's electrochemical activity in a safer, more efficient manner compared to current techniques.

"The vision is to pick out those strongest candidates to do the desirable tasks that humans want the cells to do," says Qianru Wang, a postdoc in MIT's Department of Mechanical Engineering.

"There is recent work suggesting there might be a much broader range of bacteria that have [electricity-producing] properties," adds Cullen Buie, associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT. "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."

Buie and Wang have published their results today in Science Advances...

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