Fuel cells powered by bacteria that produce electrons as they eat are quietly making waves in labs around the world. Traditional fuel cell technology is powered by chemicals like methanol or hydrogen; the bacteria-based kind are known as microbial fuel cells (MFCs). While MFC’s aren’t generating a lot of power yet, new genomics research could allow for rapid improvement in both their output and efficiency.
Government and corporate grants, not venture capital, has so far provided the bulk of the backing for MFC research. A leading scientist in the field, Derek Lovely of UMass-Amherst, has pulled in more than $50 million in grants from the Departments of Energy and Defense, as well as the Office of Naval Research and carmaker Toyota (TM).
Lovely works with the bacterial genus Geobacter, which produces electricity by metabolizing iron oxides. Currently the cells’ main application is providing perpetual power for Naval sensors out in the ocean, but looking ahead 30 years, Lovely foresees them providing energy for a wide variety of commercial uses, maybe even cars. The professor believes that learning more about the genomes of bacteria will allow researchers to pinpoint electricity-producing genes, leading, in turn, to the rapid evolution of higher-outputting bacteria.
A wide variety of other scientists are working on their own MFCs. Bruce Logan, a professor at Penn State, has one of the more interesting cleantech applications. His research focuses on harvesting energy from wastewater treatment. He thinks a realistic goal is to recover about 1000 milliwatts per square meter of bacterial surface area, which for a wastewater plant serving 100,000 people, could mean an electricity bonus worth about $1.7 million.
Logan’s addressable market would include the wastewater-intensive food processing industries, which generate billions of gallons of wastewater every day. Logan estimates that installing his electricity-producing bacteria in all these facilities could reap some $20 billion in electricity.
Another recent research effort is an attempt by Yuri Gorby, a scientist at the J. Craig Venter Institute, to prove that microbes join in large networks to “transform the soil into a geological battery.” As Gorby told Nature: “I think we will find it’s a dominant lifestyle for microbes to live in an electrically connected community.” If true, the discovery could allow people to tap into macro networks of bacterial electricity. Logan and Lovely are skeptical of the discovery, but other researchers, such as USC’s Kenneth Nealson, are more positive.
While microbial fuel cells are obviously a long way from major commercial applications, it’s possible that within the decade they could be providing rural power similar to the way that methanol fuel cells are starting to do. And the MFCs have the advantage that their fuel is readily available in even the most remote locations.