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UMass study uses microbes to turn mud into electricity

AMHERST, Mass. Will soldiers someday wear vests containing microbes that signal contact with biological weapons? Could un-manned submarines or underwater sensing devices run on microbe-power?

Research conducted by University of Massachusetts microbiologists and reported in this weeks issue of the journal Science concludes that certain microorganisms can transform organic matter commonly found at the bottom of the ocean into electrical energy.

Aside from raising the possibility that microbes someday could be used to produce power in subsurface settings, the findings have implications for many industrial and military applications, according to Derek R. Lovley, UMass microbiologist and team leader.

An understanding of how microbes generate and use electrical energy may also prompt the development of new technologies to decontaminate polluted water and sediment containing organic materials, including petroleum and other aromatic hydrocarbons, he says.

In the Science article, Lovley explains how the team used water and sediment from Boston Harbor, a collection of mason jars, ordinary electrical wiring, and sterile graphite electrodes to determine the science behind the mechanics of a simple, sediment battery.

The researchers added a layer of common mud to water in the jars, put one graphite electrode in the mud, another in overlying water. The resulting electrical current was strong enough to activate a lightbulb, or a simple computer. Even using a primitive electrode made from graphite, Lovley said, it is possible to produce enough current to power basic electronic marine instruments.

Through more refined experiments, Lovleys group found that a family of energy-harvesting microorganisms, commonly referred to as Geobacters, were key to the production of the electrical current. Whereas most life forms, including humans, get their energy by oxidizing organic compounds with oxygen, Geobacters can grow in environments lack
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Contact: Paula Hartman Cohen
phcohen@admin.umass.edu
413-545-2987
University of Massachusetts at Amherst
17-Jan-2002


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