Here's How Bacteria Is Helping Create Electricity


| LAST UPDATE 08/16/2022

By Stanley Wickens
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The climate crisis is getting worse every day - in large part thanks to greenhouse gas emissions. One of these troubling gases is the infamous methane. But a recent study has found that bacteria may actually be on our side when it comes to this environmental issue...

In a recent study, microbiologists from Radboud University discovered that bacteria can work as air purifiers for greenhouse gases. They do this by consuming the methane in these environments and converting it into electrical power. This type of bacterium, called Candidatus Methanoperedens, is naturally found in fresh water like ditches and lakes. In the Netherlands, these microbes also thrive in areas where there is an abundance of nitrogen, which they use to break down the methane. Attempting to get more electrons out of the methane emissions, researchers tried a more advanced approach.

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"This could be very useful for the energy sector," noted microbiologist and author Cornelia Welte. "In the current biogas installations, methane is produced by microorganisms and subsequently burnt, which drives a turbine, thus generating power. Less than half of the biogas is converted into power, and this is the maximum achievable capacity. We want to evaluate whether we can do better using microorganisms." To do this, they built on previous research that proved it's possible to generate power using anammox bacteria with ammonium instead of methane. But how exactly does it work?

Researchers needed to get a closer look at the conversion processes in these microbes to determine whether the results of the experiment with methane would resemble those of the research done with ammonium. “The process in these bacteria is basically the same,” said microbiologist Heleen Ouboter. “We create a kind of battery with two terminals, where one of these is a biological terminal, and the other one is a chemical terminal. We grow the bacteria on one of the electrodes, to which the bacteria donate electrons resulting from the conversion of methane.” In their research, the microbiologists succeeded in converting 31% of the methane into electricity. However, their goal is to achieve a higher percentage. “We will continue focusing on improving the system,” assured Cornelia Welte. Could this new study be the answer to reversing some of the effects of greenhouse gas emissions? It definitely gives us a glimmer of hope. Be sure to stay tuned as we find out more.