Bacteria That Eat And Breathe Electricity

2019-03-06 11:11:59

Pools of hot water like this are the home to bacteria that can eat and breathe electricity. Credit: WSU

Pools of hot water like this are the home to bacteria that can eat and breathe electricity. Credit: WSU

Researchers traveled to Yellowstone National Park to find bacteria. After a strenuous seven mile walk through scenic, isolated paths in the Heart Lake Geyser Basin area, the team found four pristine pools of hot water. They carefully left a few electrodes inserted into the edge of the water, hoping to coax little-known creatures out of hiding  bacteria that can eat and breathe electricity.

After 32 days, the team returned to the hot springs to collect the submerged electrodes. They had succeeded in capturing their prey  heat-loving bacteria that "breathe" electricity through the solid carbon surface of the electrodes.

The WSU team, in collaboration with colleagues from Montana State University, published their research detailing the multiple bacterial communities they found in the Journal of Power Sources.

This was the first time such bacteria were collected in situ in an extreme environment like an alkaline hot spring. These tiny creatures are not merely of academic interest.They may hold a key to solving some of the biggest challenges facing humanity  environmental pollution and sustainable energy. Such bacteria can "eat" pollution by converting toxic pollutants into less harmful substances and generating electricity in the process.

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.

Most living organisms  including humans  use electrons, which are tiny negatively-charged particles, in a complex chain of chemical reactions to power their bodies. Every organism needs a source of electrons and a place to dump the electrons to live. While we humans get our electrons from sugars in the food we eat and pass them into the oxygen we breathe through our lungs, several types of bacteria dump their electrons to outside metals or minerals, using protruding hair-like wires.

To collect bacteria in such an extreme environment over 32 days, Mohamed invented a cheap portable potentiostat, an electronic device that could control the electrodes submerged in the hot springs for long periods of time.