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 May 24, 2011
Electric microbes spark prospect of 'bio-batteries'

 Harnessing the charges given off by microbes to generate clean electricity could be just a decade away, research has suggested.

Scientists at the University of East Anglia (UEA) have demonstrated the molecular structure of the protein that allows certain bacteria to offload the electricity they generate.

Their research, published yesterday in scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, builds on previous research that identified tiny biological "wires" poking through microbial cell walls that make contact with a mineral and release an electric charge, a process similar to the earth wire on a plug.

The discovery of how bacteria do this opens up the prospect of 'tethering' bacteria to electrodes, creating efficient microbial fuel cells or 'bio-batteries'' according to lead author Dr Tom Clarke of UEA's School of Biological Sciences.

"This is an exciting advance in our understanding of how some bacterial species move electrons from the inside to the outside of a cell," he said.

"Identifying the precise molecular structure of the key proteins involved in this process is a crucial step towards tapping into microbes as a viable future source of electricity."

However, developing a bacterium called Shewanella oneidensis, which lives in oxygen-free environments, into a power source could take at least a decade, as existing uses of bacteria need to become 100 to 1,000 times more efficient, Dr Clarke told news agency Reuters.

The research also raises the prospect of microbes being used to develop fuel cells running on waste, or to clean up oil spills or pollution from nuclear plants like the stricken Fukushima facility in Japan.