Monday, 22 July 2013

Using Bacteria Batteries to Make Electricity

Using Bacteria Batteries to Make
Electricity
July 17, 2013 — Their idea is state of
the art: Ten Bielefeld students have
set their sights on constructing a bio-
battery. They want to make use of
the bacteria Escherichia coli to
convert glucose into energy. With this
project, they are taking part in this
year's 'international Genetically
Engineered Machine
competition' (iGEM) at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
(MIT) in Boston, USA. Since May,
they have been spending a lot of
their free time in the laboratory in
order to realise their idea. Now that
the first test results are available, the
project enters an important phase.
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Student Thorben Meyer explains how
he and his fellow team members
came up with the idea for the
project: 'There is an ever-increasing
demand for sources of alternative
energy. The conservation of fossil
fuels and the phasing out of nuclear
energy in Germany have sped this
process up.' Another consideration
was the environmental pollution
caused by conventional batteries. 'It
is not only large-scale electricity
production which pollutes the
environment, but also household
batteries, which contain many
harmful substances. Heavy metals
and dangerous inorganic and organic
electrolytes can be released into the
environment by improper handling of
batteries.'
Bio-batteries as an alternative
source of energy
For these reasons the aim of the
Bielefeld iGEM team is to develop an
environmentally friendly bio-battery
(Microbial fuel cell -- MFC), which
directly transforms bacteria into
energy. Batteries such as these work
in the same way as conventional
batteries, but with one difference.
The MFC consists of two separate
units, the anode and the cathode
components, just like the batteries
now in current household use. A
partly permeable membrane
separates the two areas. In contrast
to conventional batteries, however,
there are bacteria in the anode area
of the bio-battery instead of
electrolytes. These break down
substrates, in this case glucose, in a
metabolic process. This produces
electrons that after starting from the
anode are finally delivered in an
external loop to the cathode. The
external circuit is then the one with
the battery-powered application, for
example, for lights or small motors.
In this way, bacteria can produce
electric energy. The bio-battery offers
an array of advantages. Due to their
simple construction they can be used
in regions where there is shortage of
electricity, for example, such as in
developing countries. An advantage
that the bio-battery has over other
regenerative energy sources, such as
solar and wind power is that they are
not dependent on the weather. In
the case of bio-batteries, the more
nourishment the bacteria receive the
more energy they produce. What is
more, in theory bacteria are an
inexhaustible source of energy as
they multiply quickly when supplied
with substrates.
In the laboratory, the Bielefeld
students are investigating various
bacterial organisms and their genetic
components. Through the
combination of differing genes it is
possible to optimise the organism
Escherichia coli with a view to
produce electricity more efficiently.
The students can already report
initial successes: they have isolated
various genes that serve to carry the
electrons and begun to construct a
suitable apparatus for the production
of electricity. They would like to have
an optimised bio-battery for small-
scale use developed by the time the
preliminary European round of the
iGEM has been decided.
More than just laboratory work
In parallel to experimental work in
the laboratory, the students are also
supposed to present their project to
the public. According to the
competitions' criteria, the team is
also expected to find sponsors:
Participation fees, travel costs as well
as accommodation are estimated to
be around 20,000 Euros. The team
members have been working on the
ambitious project alongside their
regular studies. What is it that
motivates the ten Molecular
Biotechnology and Genome-Based
Systems Biology students to be so
dedicated? 'The work at iGEM offers
the chance to single-mindedly see a
project through and to measure up to
outstanding young scientists', Nadiya
Romanova says. 'Besides, by
participating in this world-wide
competition it is possible to get an
impression of research processes and
innovation in the area of synthetic
biology whilst still a student. The
iGEM team in Bielefeld has support
from Professor Dr. Alfred Pühler,
Professor Dr. Erwin Flaschel, Dr. Jörn
Kalinowski as well as Dr. Christian
Rückert from CeBiTec (Center for
Biotechnology) from Bielefeld
University.
Extensive and fierce competition
The iGEM competition has been
hosted annually at MIT since 2004.
What started as a course at MIT has
steadily attracted more and more
participants, from five teams in 2004
to over 210 this year. 'Internationally,
iGEM is the most important student
competition in synthetic biology. Its
form makes it unique in the world,'
sums up Dr Kalinowski. 'Synthetic
biology is the latest development in
the field of modern biology, and
participation in the competition
opens the students up to new
perspectives. They also have the
opportunity to prove themselves
against young scientists from around
the world. 'The European first round
takes place in Lyon, France, from 11
to 13 October. There it will be
decided which European teams will
go to Boston to take part in the final.
This is the fourth year in a row that
Bielefeld University has taken part in
the competition, successfully
presenting itself in Boston from 2010
to 2012. In the previously two years
Bielefeld scientists were amongst the
best 16 teams in the world.

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