Bacteria provide an unexpected source of energy



Bacteria are used for more than just talking about them in relation to diseases. They have been present on the face of the earth since the world is world and now we can exploit some of their actions for our own benefit, while consolidating the use of bacteria as a source of
. The aim is to intensify its use in industrial processes in an optimal way, while maximizing the transformation of waste and compounds. As stated Abraham Esteve, Bioe Principal Investigator at Imdea Agua, “Spain is a powerhouse in the development of this type of technology, in fact there are four spin-offs at the international level that operate with these microorganisms and two of them are Spanish, Metfilt and Nanoelectra, and the other two are the Dutch Plant-e and the american Cambrian Innovation».

In addition, its advantage over other renewables is that in any part of the world organic waste is generated and there is wastewater, in such a way that by studying the behavior of bacteria there are ways to advance in the production of bioenergy, since the infrastructure that They can use does not require a specific territory or material that is only present in some countries.

The direct conversion of organic substance to electricity allows to speak of a clean energy, especially useful once it is scalable and that the supply of fossil fuels runs out, or even earlier if measures to reduce global warming lead to the complementation of renewable energies. In that future Spain may have enormous potential because it has a large volume of wastewater that is not being exploited and that would help reduce dependence on other countries in obtaining energy.

Challenges and answers

Among the different fields of study is that of bioluminescence. The idea is whether the world can be illuminated cheaply. It was Ruben Costa, winner in 2017 of Innovators Under 35 Europe MIT Technology Review, which was able to respond to this challenge by stabilizingor proteins made from the E.coli bacteria and using them to make BioLed, which are similar to commercial LEDs. Except that these bulbs emit a white light that American Medical Association has been described as harmful to health. In turn, the phosphorus used in Led, belongs to a group of elements of the so-called rare earths that will be finished in a decade. This solution would be an option for computer and mobile screens.

“My team’s projects focus on a group of bacteria called Geobacter with the ability to breathe minerals such as iron and manganese oxides. And they have filaments 3,000 times thinner than the length of a cell, which are very good electrical conductors », Gemma Reguera

Finding new possibilities is a challenge in which the Spanish microbiologist is a veteran

Gemma Reguera, from Michigan State University, which has a series of projects in line with the idea of ​​generating energy, in a sustainable way, with bacteria. «My team’s projects focus on a group of bacteria called Geobacter with the ability to breathe minerals such as iron and manganese oxides. And they have filaments 3,000 times thinner than the length of a cell, which are very good electrical conductors ”, explains Reguera.

These bacterial wires transfer the electricity generated by their cellular metabolism, while capturing pollutants such as uranium, cobalt or cadmium. ‘And we also discovered that cells use nanowires to form communities on surfaces. We can produce these bacterial biofilms on electrodes and generate electricity ”, points out the microbiologist. The bacterial pilesthey are very efficient in the pretreatment of water with high organic content, such as those generated in many food product factories. All of these are key steps to conserve water and reduce energy consumption associated with cleaning it.

In 2014 a group of researchers from the Southern California University

recorded a video from the nanowires of the bacterium Shewanella oneidensis it produces “nanowires” and breathes heavy metals.

These ideas are also present in the projects developed by the group that ledto
Raul Muñoz
, researcher within the Institute of Sustainable Processes of the University of Valladolid
. One of them uses purple photosynthetic bacteria that capture energy from the sun to treat the liquid fraction of wastewater from the pig industry. It is about making the primary production processes more sustainable. “70% of the energy contained in this waste could be transformed into biogas”, clarifies Muñoz.

It would increase the environmental sustainability of livestock farming and could be used for fertilization. It would act in symbiosis with agricultural practices supplying low-cost fertilizers, since with the increase in the price of energy there is an increase in the cost of chemical fertilizers and these technologies would mitigate the problem. They are now in talks with companies in the pig sector in Castilla y León to scale up this technology. They have had projects with Urbaser, Aqualia or FCC, who are investigating these issues and also on biohydrogen, an energy vector that could be produced from sewage and solid waste, using bacteria. What is a solution to the decarbonization of the energy sector.

It is the subject of a star project at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.
Albert Guisasola
, chemical engineer involved in this work details: «What is intended is the production of hydrogen from exoelectric microorganisms. These systems are called bioelectrochemical and are catalyzed by bacteria, because what they do is that the energy required to produce hydrogen is ten times smaller. In such a way that Guisasola points out that we would achieve that treatment plants are not only energy consumers, they are also producers, through hydrogen. Calculations have been made that say that wastewater contains between two and ten times more energy than we are using to treat it, that is, we could obtain energy from wastewater. And yet we waste it. It’s like we have gasoline and we just burn it. For Guisasola in the coming years the recovery of water is key indry spells where we will have to recycle more water than ever.

This problem is something that has in mind

Abraham Esteve, professor at the University of Alcalá and principal investigator of the Bioe group of Imdea Agua, which develops applications using the metabolism of electroactive bacteria, which have a high potential in the treatment of wastewater. One of the projects is the Metland technology marketed by the Metfilter spin-off. Electroactive bacteria are basically capable of interacting with an electrically conductive material, converting what they eat into an electrical current.

They have also developed biosensors using bacteria. This technology is developed Nanoelectra, which is a startup of Imdea Agua. They can also get the much desired desalination of water with microorganisms.

When it comes to disruptive ideas highlights a work from the University of Massachusetts Amherst that involves bacteria and that has been published by the journal Nature. The device named Air-gen has protein nanowires produced by Geobacter bacteria that are connected to electrodes in a way that generates electrical current from water vapor present in the atmosphere. If scaled up, such a technology could, according to the scientists involved, power portable devices such as wearables or be applied to mobiles, ending periodic charging, which would mean the elimination of traditional batteries.

As Esteve comments twenty years ago all this sounded like science fiction and who knows what will happen in five. Perhaps those who dare to illuminate new ideas with bacteria can make a difference.

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