March 15, 2006 1:02 PM PST

Bacteria could power tiny robots

A strain of bacteria that releases electrons as a waste product could become the secret ingredient for developing fuel cells for spy drones and other small robots.

Researchers at Rice University and the University of Southern California have embarked on a project to harness the power of Shewanella oneidensis, a microorganism that essentially spits lightning. Rather than consume oxygen to turn food into energy, Shewanella consumes metals.

The waste product of its metabolic process comes in the form of excess electrons stripped from the metals but not recombined in subsequent chemical reactions. The bacteria lives in soil, water and other environments and can extract its necessary nutrients from a variety of materials.

In a fuel cell, the idea is that colonies of Shewanella will attach themselves to the anode, a component inside fuel cells and batteries that gathers electrons, and produce electrons.

"You can feed them pretty much what is available," said Andreas Luttge, an associate professor of earth sciences and chemistry at Rice. "The goal would be to feed them waste water and produce energy."

Hybrid fuel cells--where one strain of bacteria feeds off the waste product of another to produce electricity--are also possible.

Microbes could become one of the crucial ingredients in the future of the energy industry. Researchers at Stanford University have isolated a microbe that turns light into hydrogen, which could become a fuel source. Meanwhile, Craig Venter, the first person to map the human genome, has formed a company that will try to develop energy-producing microbes.

While the concept is feasible, researchers now have to figure out how to optimize the processes involved in creating a fuel cell. Kenneth Nealson, the USC Wrigley chair in environmental studies and professor of earth sciences and biological sciences, will head up the research on altering the genetic pathways of Shewanella for maximum electron production. Nealson is one of the pioneers of geobiology and has conducted extensive research on how microbes survive in oxygen poor environments.

Luttge and others at Rice will experiment with the anode to improve bacterial attachment and other parameters.

In the next five years, the team wants to develop a fuel cell that can propel itself.

The research is funded by $4.4 million from the Department of Defense's Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative. The Defense Department is determined to put more robots in the field to transport equipment, conduct battle operations, or serve as reconnaissance vehicles. Conceivably, a small robot powered by a bacteria fuel cell could shuttle a camera or listening device unobtrusively next to someone.

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5 comments

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Stupid idea...
Lets see...Battery breaks down, leaks bacteria. User gets sick. Environment gets poisoned even more. The way it is going it wouldn't surprise me if they come up with a nuclear battery. Then users can have their own mini armaggedon when that thing blows up. It is all nonsense.
Posted by dondarko (261 comments )
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Supid idea....? No.
alrighty,

A>We're talking about a bacterium that requires metals (undoubtedly, a constant supply of them) for energy production. Now, you may eat nail, but generally the human gut doesn't tend to be a very good storehouse for metal ions. So we probably don't have to worry about human infection.

B> It clearly states in the article that these bacteria are found in soil and water. So your point about a leak causing environmental contamination seems a little far-fetched.

C> A commercially available bio-battery like this would more than likely involve the use of lab strains of bacteria that are specially designed to survive in the battery (this would probably also be required for patenting). So even if a large amount of this bateria contaminated the environement, their metabolic processes would probably be altered so much that it'd be like throwing a kitten into a razor-blade shower.

sincerly,
Marcel

p.s. pwned!
Posted by marcel4056 (1 comment )
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You're a dumbass
I assumed people reading the news at Cnet had some semblance of intelligence. Silly me, you are obviously retarded. just because its bacteria, doesnt mean its harmful to humans or the environment. These bacteria break down waste products such as waste water or metals. You even have bacteria in your intestine. So if we are all lucky that bacteria will make you sick and you can have a mini armaggedon in your bowels.
Posted by (1 comment )
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Bacteria to Power
I believe in the power of scientific community. The world today around us, if ticking well(or otherwise,), it is because of the visionaries who think differently. Let us encourage them to come up with sustainable, environment friendly systems more in number and quality
N T Nair, Executive Knowledge Lines monthly
India
Posted by ntnair (1 comment )
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