Better Than a Battery? Here's a Microbe That Could Help Store Clean Energy

By Eliza Strickland | April 8, 2009 12:28 pm

microbe methaneA microbial culture could be turned into a living energy storage system, researchers say, which could cheaply stockpile power from inconsistent solar and wind installations. Proponents of these alternative energy sources are investigating many different ways to store power for the inevitable moments when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. The intriguing new idea involves “feeding” surplus power to the microorganisms instead, which combine it with carbon dioxide to create methane. That could then be stored and burned when needed. The method is sustainable too, as the carbon is taken from the atmosphere, not released from long-term storage in oil or coal [New Scientist].

The researchers have determined that a single-celled microorganism, a type of archaea, uses electricity to convert carbon dioxide and water into methane. Sustainable energy expert Tom Curtis comments that the use of microorganisms, rather than conventional catalysts, is a plus. “There are no noble metals involved, so it should be very cheap,” he says. Of the energy put into the system as electricity, 80% was eventually recovered when the methane was burned – a fairly high efficiency. “You don’t get all the energy back, but that’s a problem with any form of energy storage,” says Curtis [New Scientist].

According to the new study, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, the microbe is used as part of an electrolytic cell. An electrolytic cell is the opposite of a battery – a battery takes two compounds that want to react with each other and taps that potential in the form of electricity. In an electrolytic cell, the electrons are pumped in and they drive the reaction uphill, so to speak. In this case that uphill reaction is CO2 turning into CH4 (the opposite of the downhill version, which happens when we burn CH4, or any other fossil fuel) [EcoGeek]. The microbe acts as a catalyst for the process.

Lead researcher Bruce Logan says the simple technology could easily be scaled up for commercial applications. And while the eventual burning of the methane produced would put greenhouse gases into the air again, Logan notes that if the carbon dioxide used by the archaea was drawn from power plant emissions or from the open air, the process would at least be carbon neutral.

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Image: Bruce Logan’s lab 

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World, Technology
  • Nick

    Speaking of microbes, and only sorta off topic, I want to see someone invent a process that takes microbes (or whatever) and atmospheric CO2 and produces oxygen and carbon nanotubes out the other end.

    Whoever figures that out is going to be the first titan of the carbon age, and go a long way towards solving global warming (unless of course they accidentally eat all the CO2 and all the plants die, taking us with them. )

  • ClaudeA

    Nick Says,

    May I assume that by saying ” . . .solving global warming . . .”, you are actually attempting to validate the fault-riddled proposal that humans can cause Earth temperature change? That silly theory is so infinitely riddled with ridiculous assumptions it has gone the way of Darwin’s own refuted theory that species evolved into each other, and from some goofy mass of elements.

    However, with the many, many sorces of energy now used, and upcoming on Planet Earth, for powering Man’s great experiment with his own elimination as a viable product of that silly evolution theory (See the NWO documentation on Human Race Elimination here:, we have hundreds of sources of clean energy, even coal, as we apply the knowledge we have to supply all we need in energy to every aspect of our lives, in any part of Earth.

    If, as I am assuming at this point, you propose that humans can change Earth’s temperature by their activities, let’s get that silly notion out in the open, and show it for what is really is, a shill to detract from Third World Development, in order for the NWO to more easily eliminate 99%+ of those peoples from the face of Earth, per the above “Guide Stones”‘ revelation of the agenda of the NWO.

    Take the entire population of Earth, transport everyone to the State of Texas, and you find that every human being alive has give or take 31 square feet to live in. Now, take the entire surface of the State of Texas, and render a comparison between its surface and the rest of Earth.

    With that result, now calcualte the scope of the energy utilized by the entire population of Earth now residing in Texas, and draw up an equasion where the carbon dioxide naturally produced by Earth is compared to that produced purely by Human Being occupation of Earth.

    Now, practice what no al Gore(He refuses to openly interview with the founder(Now deceased) of the theory of Global Warming-as-caused-by-mankind), AFTER he uncovered many flaws in that theory which render it completely invalid – speaking TRUTH about this silly notion of humanity caused global warming.

    Better to be politically incorrect, than to follow liars into their loss of respect, and the infamy of disrespect for everything afterward proven as fact.

  • Chance

    Wow ClaudeA, your absolutely clueless aren’t you. Your telling me humans pumping many times more CO2 then has ever been before into the atmosphere has no impact whatsoever? that’s just laughable. Yes humans can cause climate change. you sound like like a religious radical that would have hung people like Galileo and the like. you clearly want to believe that everything we know now, is all there is to know. Good luck with that.

    Nick – I saw a show on discovery that mentioned a girl had invented a small version of an air filter aimed at cleaning the carbon dioxide out of the air. She wanted to built a 100 or so out in middle of no where and let them do their thing. The thing we really need to stop doing is burning coal, sorry ClaudeA, coal is not a “clean” energy source. It’s actually very dirty, and I’m not just talking about the emissions from burning it. Every part of the process in using coal is damaging to the Earth. Wind, Sun, and eventually nuclear fusion no the answers to both our energy crisis and global warming, which wasn’t started by the humans (it’s a natural process of the earth), but humans sped up the process many times it’s usual speed. I feel sorry for ignorant people like ClaudeA here that thinks it’s all make believe, some conspiracy by scientists to trick us into reading their papers and magazines.

  • Rick D

    Carbon Sciences is already doing the microbe thing.

  • Dave

    Frankly i must agree with Chance on this one. Representing the fact that global warming is no longer an argument. I once read that it would take over 200 slaves to clone our lifestyle, and the fact that fossil fuels have made us near gods is no secret. But the fact of the matter is that weather you believe in global warming or not, one can’t deny the large amount of coincidences that have happened over the past couple decades. Speaking on a purely scientific stand point of the theory of evolution, it may seem bogus and may not seem perfect but the thought of a great bearded man giving rise to our reality, and our intelligence seems a lot more bogus than a single cell organism deforming to create another strand of life, and then another, ect. If that of course isn’t then how do you explain genes? or perhaps the hominid remains in Africa that clearly aren’t those of the common day human? Darwin’s theory of evolution is the best way to explain our origins other than resorting to the Dogma that we trusted so well in the dark ages. If we stand ANY chance of keeping our American lifestyle, it’s in the power of fission. In short Claude, try to read something unbiased about… Everything.

  • Wings42

    Dave, I love the 200 slave image.

    The one I read on a similar vein is that every American is towing around the energy equivalence of a full grown humpback whale.

    Regarding ClaudeA’s response, I largely agree with Chance, but whatever the cause of global warming, there are a multiple of other reasons to become energy efficient, sustainable, and protective of our home (the earth). Big Coal is destroying whole landscapes in Appalachia and around the world with open pit mining, as the oil shale industry is destroying whole landscapes in Alberta, Canada. Our appetites for more stuff and bigger stuff and more meat and more children and more of this and more of that is creating a deteriorating quality of life and happiness and is imperiling future generations.

  • Guy Josserand

    It is truly astounding that relatively intelligent people can say what ClaudeA says. He probably believes the Earth is flat and the sun and moon are chariots that ride across the sky. How can we bring these luddites aboard the twenty-first century so they don’t breed a resurgent backlash like happened in Nazi Germany?

  • jesus atocha diaz saenz

    This is a great blog, been looking for something like this for ages. keep up the good work.


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