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Bacteria battery could be reality

Tue, 04/16/2013 - 18:36 -- Ruth Williams

Bacteria that generate an electrical charge when in contact with minerals could be used as part of bio-batteries. Researchers at the University of East Anglia researching well-known marine bacteria Shewanella oneidensis have found the secret to its power-generating mechanism.

The scientists' understanding of the power-generating process will allow the bacteria to be used as a power source.

The bacteria had been studied to understand how they influenced mineral levels in seas and lakes. "Scientists noticed that the levels of iron and manganese in the lake changed with the seasons and were coordinated with the growth patterns of the bacteria," said Dr Tom Clarke, a lecturer at the school of biological sciences at UEA.

The type of bacterium is found all over the world in waterways, the strain used in the research came from a lake in New York.

The scientists studied the method by which the bacteria affected the change in minerals. They found the bacteria generated a charge, and on contact with the mineral surface, effected a chemical change.

When the research team realised the protein on the bacteria directly touched the surface of the mineral they saw the potential of conducting electricity through their cell membranes. 

"This is the first time that we have been able to actually look at how the components of a bacterial cell membrane are able to interact with different substances, and understand how differences in metal and mineral interactions can occur on the surface of a cell,” said Dr Clarke.

The protein on the surface of the bacteria could be tethered to a metal or mineral electrode to create a microbial fuel cell or bio battery. As a power source, it could be used in places and for devices and processes in inaccessible or hostile environments.