E. coli: Five letters that can repulse even the strongest of stomachs. Though the masses believe this to be the universal food poisoning bacteria, fields such as biotechnology and microbiology both utilize the model organism’s ease of manipulation. In one recent development, ten students from Bielefeld University in Germany have found a way to engineer E. coli to convert glucose into energy by way of a bio-battery.
Obviously, there’s a serious need to find alternative sources of energy as our natural resources are slowly depleting. In Germany, this has become especially true as nuclear energy is being phased out and conservation of fossil fuels has taken precedence. Since batteries tend to create high levels of environmental pollution even though they are household items and not large scale producers, the Bielefeld students figured they would start small, yet big.
Their invention works much the same way that a normal battery would, the main difference being in the microbial fuel cell. In the microbial fuel cell, there are two units, the anode and cathode, separated by a semi-permeable membrane. The bacteria will be located in the anode breaking down glucose in a metabolic process that produces electrons which travel to the cathode. That is how the electricity is produced.
Because of the simplicity of their design, these batteries can be very useful in underdeveloped countries where there’s a shortage of electrical energy. Plus, these bio-batteries are not dependent on the weather as solar and wind are. They work day and night, through sun, storm, or snow. The greatest advantage would probably be the fact that bacteria are inexhaustible. Once fed substrates, these microorganisms multiply quickly. There’s no telling how widespread this invention can go.
The team is planning on entering their invention into the international Genetically Engineered Machine competition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology later this year. Not only will they be competing against 210 of their peers, but they will have to present the bio-battery to the public and find sponsors to fund their costs. The first round of competition will take place in Europe in October.
While the team prepares for their debut, spectators look on in awe as such young individuals formulate a concoction that may change the world!