Like it or not, bacteria are all around us and within us. These microscopic organisms have a disproportionately large effect on the world around us. Everyone knows that the wrong kinds of bacteria, from human and animal waste, can contaminate our water and food and make us sick. Inside our stomachs, the right kinds of bacteria help us break food down and extract the nutrients from it.
Bacteria can also survive in the harshest environments you could imagine, including the International Space Station and the hottest geysers in the world. What if we could harness the power of bacteria to work for us?
Scientists have discovered several kinds of bacteria strains, known as Geobacter, that can live off of waste and generate electricity, raising hopes that these could be used to solve two of the major problems humankind faces in the 21st century: where to get our energy from and how to fight the pollution that an ever-expanding population generates.
— WSU News (@WSUNews) March 5, 2019
In Yellowstone National Park, one of the world’s most famous places for geysers, scientists from Washington State University have identified bacteria that live in the hot pools. According to WSU Insider, the team of scientists left electrodes in the edge of the four hot pools in August 2018. After 32 days, they returned to collect their electrodes and were successfully able to capture these heat-loving bacteria. Their food source: electricity. Their waste product: electricity.
How is this possible? All living things on Earth are powered by electron exchanges—with humans, we get them from the sugars in the foods we eat and pass them onward through breathing oxygen. With these bacteria, it’s a different story.
Some bacteria eat pure electricity.
Posted by Hashem Al-Ghaili on Monday, February 12, 2018
They capture electrons from the environment around them, including from chemical pollutants, like metals, and then dump them back, creating a kind of electrical circuit. Scientists are able to use carbon electrodes to attract them out of these areas.
If the scientists could get the bacteria to feed on the carbon electrodes, it’s hoped that they could “eat” other sources of carbon, and reduce pollution. Meanwhile, the electricity they produce in the process could be used to power devices.
Haluk Beyenal, one of the professors who supervised the research, said: “As these bacteria pass their electrons into metals or other solid surfaces, they can produce a stream of electricity that can be used for low‑power applications.”
While research continues into these fascinating creatures that can live off so little and create so much, there’s considerable hope that their survival mechanism could be part of saving our planet.
As a BBC article put it, the hope is that providing an electrode for bacteria to do their business, “they have the potential to steal electrons from toxic waste, oil spills and nuclear waste, cleaning up our waste and generating electricity in the process.”
A story that may well disprove the old proverb that nothing in life comes for free.