New technology enables scientists to generate energy from live bacteria

Researchers have come up with a new and natural way to harvest energy from the sun. Instead of creating a more efficient solar panel or photovoltaic material, they devised a means of getting electricity from photosynthetic cyanobacteria, an article in News Wise reported.

This family of microorganisms is often found in lakes, seas, and other areas that have plenty of water. Cyanobacteria possess the ability to convert sunlight into energy through photosynthesis.

They are believed to be the first photosynthetic organisms on the planet. Cyanobacteria are responsible for producing much of the initial batch of oxygen that made Earth a habitable planet. Even to this day, they contribute a significant chunk of the oxygen in the atmosphere.

Because they are the predecessors to plants, cyanobacteria occupy a similar, important spot in the food chain. They are a vital source of sugar and other organic materials that are needed by higher, energy-intensive lifeforms.

As if that wasn’t impressive enough, cyanobacteria can also produce energy even without a source of light. They have evolved respiratory mechanisms that can break down stored sugar into usable energy. Both energy-generating mechanisms can even interact with each other. (Related: Hawaii is leading other states in generating renewable energy.)

Using photosynthetic bacteria to create clean hydrogen fuel

Researchers from the American Technion Society (ATS) realized that they could tap both of those energy-generating mechanisms for clean, renewable electrical power. They invented a system that could harvest energy from cyanobacteria no matter what time it was.

In their system, cyanobacteria were provided with a steady access to sunlight. The microorganisms generated a stable photocurrent through photosynthesis. The electrons from this current were used to produce hydrogen gas at a steady pace.

Hydrogen gas is a very clean and efficient energy source. Fuel cell vehicles that burn it as fuel produce ordinary water as their only by-product.

The main drawback to using hydrogen as a fuel is that the production process requires a lot of power. Normally, a source of renewable energy is used to make hydrogen gas. Solar power is a popular choice.

In a way, the ATS researchers are using a biological version of a solar power plant. They reported that their system is a potential means of producing green, renewable energy in the form of hydrogen gas.

The first successful use of live cyanobacteria to produce renewable energy

Cyanobacteria are said to have a natural solar antenna that can get the most out of effectively inexhaustible sunlight. They can tap a wide range of intensities and wavelengths.

This solar energy is used to power chemical reaction centers that break down water into its components. The oxygen is released into the air as a by-product. Meanwhile, the hydrogen ions are used to generate chemical energy, which is then used to make food for the bacteria.

This clean and efficient natural process has led many researchers to study cyanobacteria as a possible source of energy and hydrogen. The ATS researchers reported that their system is the first to successfully use live bacteria to produce hydrogen gas.

Live bacteria are able to heal any damage done to proteins that are involved in the photosynthetic process. This real-time regeneration improves the longevity of the system. Furthermore, the researchers are happy to report that the energy harvesting process will not harm the useful cyanobacteria.

ATS researchers Noam Adir, Gadi Schuster, and Avner Rotschild published these findings in the journal Nature Communications. Interestingly, an earlier work of theirs used the photosynthetic leaves of the spinach plant to produce energy.

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