How to Make Electricity from Bacteria

Bacteria making electricity? Sounds like science fiction, no? But it’s already happening at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, courtesy of Professors Derek Lovley and Kelly Nevin and others.

Lovley and company took some Geobacter organisms from the muck of the Potomac River in the late 1980s and discovered that they are good for oxidizing petroleum pollutants and uranium in groundwater, thus making it easier to remove them from the water. They also discovered that Geobacter can transfer electrons to electrodes. In other words, it can make electricity.

And it does all this while consuming carbon dioxide.

To find out more, watch this interview of Lovley on the Geobacter website (scroll down), which explains how they managed to design a fuel cell containing bacteria that generate enough power to run a calculator. Almost. Lovley says they’re breeding Geobacter to produce more power. (Sure hope those bacteria don’t escape. After all, what could possibly go wrong with super-bacteria?)

But I think it’s fabulous that one day people may take one of those big wooden tubs used for container gardening, fill it with muck, and produce their own electricity.

Source: “Silt Solution,” part of the series “The Latest from the Labs,” Edward Humes, Sierra magazine, September–October 2010

How Is This Restoration?

If the Geobacter are used to remove contaminants from water, then I think the restoration aspect is pretty obvious. In the case of energy-producing bacteria, the restoration aspect comes from the bacteria’s ability to produce green energy, which reduces the need for oil or coal, which reduces the need for extraction.