In Yellowstone National Park, lies the Heart Lake Geyser Basin. This area is home to pools of hot water, ranging from about 110 to nearly 200 degrees Fahrenheit, that carry some very impressive bacteria that eat pollution and breathe electricity.
Straight from the source
Now, Washington State University's (WSU) Abdelrhman Mohamed and colleagues have captured these microorganisms straight from their source to study them.
"This was the first time such bacteria were collected in situ in an extreme environment like an alkaline hot spring," said Mohamed.
Mohamed's interest in the bacteria went beyond academic pursuits. The microbes may hold the key to solving the problems of pollution and energy demand that plague us today.
Why? Because these specific microorganisms can literally eat pollution. They do this by turning toxic pollutants into less harmful substances and generating electricity in the process.
"As these bacteria pass their electrons into metals or other solid surfaces, they can produce a stream of electricity that can be used for low-power applications," said Haluk Beyenal, Paul Hohenschuh Distinguished Professor in the Gene.
Collecting these microbes was no easy task. Mohamed and his colleagues had to leave a few electrodes in the edge of the extremely hot water, hoping the bacteria would come out of hiding.
To achieve this, Mohamed invented a cheap portable and highly heat resistant potentiostat. A potentiostat is an electronic device required to control a three-electrode cell.
The researchers then left the electrodes in the water for 32 days. In the end, the experiment proved worthwhile succeeding in capturing the bacteria in their natural and optimum environment.
"The natural conditions found in geothermal features such as hot springs are difficult to replicate in laboratory settings," said Beyenal. "So, we developed a new strategy to enrich heat-loving bacteria in their natural environment."
This isn't the first time scientists have used bacteria to generate energy. Other experiments have seen bacteria combined with sewage to produce electricity, while others have resulted in microbes that can create energy-packed rings.
Could the key to solving both our energy and pollution crises truly lie in these microorganisms? Time will tell.
The WSU team, in collaboration with colleagues from Montana State University, published their research in the Journal of Power Sources.