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Microbe can be potential solution to climate crisis

By Barry He | China Daily Global | Updated: 2020-02-26 10:02

More than 30 years ago, the microbiologist Derek Lovley made an intriguing discovery deep in the sludge of the Potomac River, which runs through the mid-Atlantic section of North America.

The microbe he found, coined Geobacter, was discovered to have the ability to produce electrically conductive protein nanowires.

Fast-forward to the present day, and this microscopic miracle that was found in the mud may form a significant part of our battle against climate change.

Traditional forms of renewable energy are being quickly adopted in order to battle climate change. New technologies are also appearing all the time, in a bid to compete with the convenient but damning ease of fossil fuels. New cross-discipline technology from researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, led by electrical engineer Yao Jun, alongside Lovley's microbe expertise, has resulted in a prototype that uses Geobacter nanowire proteins produced by bacteria to turn moisture in the air into electricity. The concept is already capable of powering small electronic devices. However, the aim is to scale the tech up to large commercial levels. Potential applications are huge, even relatively dry air in the Sahara desert would suffice to produce electricity.

As reported in the scientific journal Nature, the device has been dubbed "Air-gen", which is short for air-powered generator. It connects electrodes to the said protein nanowires so an electrical current can be generated through the water vapor naturally found in the Earth's atmosphere.

Electricity is literally made out of thin air, and can work to generate clean renewable energy 24/7, giving it marked advantages over traditional renewable energy techniques such as solar or wind turbines.

Sunlight or kinetic energy is not required, and the process can work just as easily indoors as outside.

Researchers state that the plan is to bring the device to a commercial level as soon as possible. Further down the pipeline, there are also plans to produce a small Air-gen powered patch or sticker, which would be capable of powering electronic wearable technology. Smart watches of the future may therefore be self-powered, and may even lose the need for cumbersome conventional batteries. Imagine a future where your phone simply has a pad attached to it that constantly produces electricity for your device, without the need for periodic charging or cables.

Yao also said in a statement that: "The ultimate goal is to make large-scale systems. For example, the technology might be incorporated into wall paint that could help power your home. Or, we may develop stand-alone air-powered generators that supply electricity off the grid. Once we get to an industrial scale for wire production, I fully expect that we can make large systems that will make a major contribution to sustainable energy production."

The mass production of nanowires has also accelerated this process, through using the E. Coli strain of bacteria instead to produce the wires as a quicker, and much cheaper method.

How widely adopted this new and exciting technology becomes, remains to be seen. The climate change issue is one that is entwined with lethargy when it comes to the energy research field and the production of modern and innovative ways of storing and producing consumable energy. Standard lithium batteries have remained more or less unchanged for several decades. New developments in this field are therefore always welcome, and our hidden universe of microbial miracles found literally in mud may offer an ever-increasing expanse of knowledge for us to tap into.

The advent of the revolutionary gene-editing tool CRISPR, is another such example, found in a sizable proportion of bacteria everywhere. The answers to some of our most pressing scientific problems, may therefore have been literally under our noses the entire time.

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