Electricity from germs could be the next big thing, say Israeli researchers

Electricity from germs could be the next big thing, say Israeli researchers

Cyanobacteria may hold the key to a future of clean energy, Technion scientists claim

Illustration: Cyanobacteria. (Itay Goldshmid)
Illustration: Cyanobacteria. (Itay Goldshmid)

You can generate electricity from oil, you can produce it from natural gas, you can make it from nuclear energy, and you can channel it from the sun, via solar energy conversion systems. You can even generate electricity from photosynthetic bacteria, also known as cyanobacteria, based on a new innovation developed at the Technion. As published in a study in the journal, Nature Communications, the Technion researchers have developed an energy-producing system that exploits both the photosynthesis and respiratory processes that cyanobacteria undergo, with the harvested energy leveraged to generate electricity based on hydrogen.

The study was conducted by three Technion faculty members: Professor Noam Adir from the Schulich Faculty of Chemistry, Professor Gadi Schuster from the Faculty of Biology, and Professor Avner Rothschild, from the Faculty of Materials Science and Engineering. The work involved collaboration between Dr. Gadiel Saper and Dr. Dan Kallmann, as well as colleagues from Bochum, Germany and the Weizmann Institute of Science. It was supported by various bodies, including the Nancy and Stephen Grand Technion Energy Program (GTEP), the Russell Berrie Nanotechnology Institute (RBNI), the Technion Hydrogen Technologies Research Lab (HTRL), the Adelis Foundation, the Planning and Budgeting Committee’s I-CORE program, the Israel Science Foundation, the USA-Israel Binational Science Fund (BSF) and the German research fund (DFG-DIP).

Scientists have long considered cyanobacteria a possible energy source. Cyanobacteria belong to a family of bacteria common to lakes, seas, and many other habitats. The bacteria use photosynthetic mechanisms that enable them to generate energy from sunlight. They also generate energy in the dark, via respiratory mechanisms based on digestion and degradation of sugar.

Cyanobacteria are a vital part of the environment, as they form a source of atmospheric oxygen and an essential source of organic material (they are largely made of sugar) — the first link in the food chain. To generate the energy they need to exist, the cyanobacteria use phycobilisomes (PBS), a kind of “solar antenna,” to absorb a broad range of sunlight intensities and wavelengths, efficiently and effectively exploiting the inexhaustible power of the sun. That energy is channeled to chemical reaction centers, where water is broken down, while releasing a flow of hydrogen ions, which are then applied to generate chemical energy, driving food production.

The team simply diverted the produced hydrogen to generate electricity — demonstrating that cyanobacteria can indeed be used as a source of clean energy. No mechanical process is required to generate the power, and no fossil fuels need to be burned in order to produce the electricity. One of the breakthroughs of this study was the use of live bacteria, said the researchers — and as an extra bonus, no bacteria are expected to be harmed in the process of generating power.

With this innovation, the day of the fossil fuel may soon be gone. The vagaries of solar power generation (namely, that it only works when the sun is out) will no longer limit the generation of clean energy, nor will the dangerous power of the atom be needed as a source of energy. Instead, the power plant of the future could very well be a massive colony of cyanobacteria, just doing their thing — producing hydrogen energy from their natural process of living, with humans harvesting that energy to create electricity, clean-burning hydrogen fuel, and more. “In the recent past, utilization of biological systems for environmentally clean energy production has been offered as an attractive alternative to the use of fossil fuels,” say the authors of the study. “Our results presented here show that cyanobacteria offer a unique opportunity to fully utilize the potential of biological energy conversion systems.”

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