Bacteria Could Be Source of Green Energy

Scientists believe they can use a certain type of bacteria to harvest energy for human use.  The bacteria is a microbe called the Shewanella Oneidensis and it may just be able to provide energy that humans can use to power their lives.  The research is coming out of USC Dornsife and is being led by Scientist Moh El-Naggar.


Harnessing energy from living sources has potential for new sustainable technology

Could a unique bacterium lead to a sustainable energy solution?

Scientist Moh El-Naggar and his team think it’s possible. They work with the Shewanella oneidensis species of bacteria, one of a group of microbes that essentially “breathe” rocks.

As part of their metabolism, the bacteria have developed a way to transfer electrons from the interior of the cell across their outer membrane to a receiving surface in the outside world.

The process is akin to the way humans use oxygen to breathe. The body takes electrons from food and, ultimately, transfers those electrons to oxygen inhaled by the lungs.

The organism was discovered nearly 30 years ago by Kenneth Nealson, now holder of the Wrigley Chair in Environmental Studies and professor of Earth sciences and biological sciences at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. Scientists have more recently been interested in learning exactly how the bacteria pull off such an exceptional biological trick.

El-Naggar, associate professor of physics, biological sciences, and chemistry at USC Dornsife, and a collaborative team from USC and Caltech think they have the answer. Their paper published on March 22 by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences highlights research that offers a new understanding of how these bacteria may use “nanowires” to accomplish the electronic feat.

Harnessing energy from living, organic sources holds tremendous potential as a new sustainable energy solution. A microbial fuel cell, for example, could generate electricity by capturing electrons from the bacteria on electrodes instead of the rocks that these organisms evolved to breathe.

Microbes are highly evolved machines. And what we have here is a class that is really good at converting energy and interacting with the abiotic world.

Moh El-Neggar

“Microbes are highly evolved machines,” El-Naggar said. “And what we have here is a class that is really good at converting energy and interacting with the abiotic world.”

Another advantage to using “electric bacteria” is already being explored at USC — wastewater treatment. Microbes feed on the waste, oxidizing the organic substances and producing a small amount of electricity.

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