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Bacteria instead of Lithium?

Bacteria battery by Sam Molenaar

Sam Molenaar believes that, with further optimization, the bacteria-based battery could rival the performance of lithium-ion batteries at a lower cost and with greater safety.

A rechargeable battery driven by bacteria? Lithium-ion batteries are limited by safety issues, high costs and other factors. Sam Molenaar and his colleagues from Wageningen University wanted to come up with a less expensive, more sustainable solution. 

The research team combined two separate microbial energy systems. One system used bacteria to form acetate from electricity, while the other one converted the produced acetate back into electricity.

The researchers were then able to charge the battery over a 16-hour period and then discharge it over the next 8 hours. This timing was intentional, mimicking the day-night pattern typical for solar energy production.

Importantly, the team repeated this cycle 15 times in as many days. With further optimization, they say the energy density of the microbial battery could be competitive with conventional technologies. Someday it could help us store energy from local renewable sources safely and at a lower cost than current options.

Experimental battery charges and recharges via bacteria

Inside your body, the wrong kind of bacteria can sap you of energy. Inside a battery, however, it turns out that the right kind of bacteria can cause an energy boost that might be able to help power our lives. That’s the finding from researchers in the Netherlands, who’ve just developed a bacteria-based battery that they were able to charge and discharge 15 times in a row.

The battery combined two technologies. The first is that of a microbial fuel cell in which electricity is produced when electrons are lost by one molecule and gained by another as they undergo an reduction/oxidation (redox) reaction. The second is microbial electro synthesis, a process in which the electricity produced is converted back into chemicals be be reused in the battery.

In their trials of the battery, which were reported in Environmental Science & Technology Letters, the researchers allowed the battery to charge for 16 hours and then were able to get eight hours of power from it, which mimics the behavior of current solar cells.

Sam Molenaar believes that, with further optimization, the bacteria-based battery could rival the performance of lithium-ion batteries at a lower cost and with greater safety. One possible application of the batteries would be to store energy from renewable sources such as solar and wind.

Demo

Although this first prototype demonstrates the plausibility of microbial rechargeable batteries, more work is needed in order for the batteries to be competitive with conventional batteries. For example, the energy density needs to be increased, which the researchers plan to address by designing a better counter electrode and increasing the acetate concentration.

Sam Molenaar: “As the energy density of the microbial rechargeable battery will depend heavily on the final concentration of substrate that can be formed, it is foreseen that its applications will be limited to stationary use, with best-case scenario energy densities being comparable to the well-known good old lead-acid car battery. However, since the battery does not contain any hazardous chemicals or (expensive) heavy metals, upscaling it may be relatively cheap, and using it in less well-controlled domestic situations would be safe.”

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