MAY 18, 2017 3:59 PM PDT

Turning methane into electricity with bacteria

Methane is approximately 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide, which means that it has a big part in climate change. If we are able to harness methane to be converted into electricity, we may be able actually utilize this harmful greenhouse gas for good. A team of researchers has figured out how to do this process using a microbial fuel cell, and their work was recently published in Nature Communications. Watch the video below to learn how to make your own microbial fuel cell.

Typical methods of methane transportation are risky because leaks from pipes into the atmosphere are common; for this reason, a direct conversion process of methane into electricity that can be instigated near drilling sites is needed.

"Currently, we have to ship methane via pipelines," said Thomas K. Wood, holder of the biotechnology endowed chair and professor of chemical engineering, Penn State. "When you ship methane, you release a greenhouse gas. We can't eliminate all the leakage, but we could cut it in half if we didn't ship it via pipe long distances."

To make the process less leak-prone, the scientists want to develop microbial fuel cells that convert methane into electricity near the wellheads themselves. Microbial fuel cells convert chemical energy to electrical energy using microorganisms, and while that idea is not new, using methane to power a microbial fuel cell is a relatively novel idea. "People have tried for decades to directly convert methane," said Wood. "But they haven't been able to do it with microbial fuel cells. We've engineered a strain of bacteria that can."

The problem until has been that it is difficult to find bacteria that consume methane, as most of them live in the deep sea. But the researchers have found a solution. "We know of a bacterium that can produce an energy enzyme that grabs methane," said Wood. "We can't grow them in captivity, but we looked at the DNA and found something from the bottom of the Black Sea and synthesized it."

As the study explains the team produced a synthetic consortium of bacteria made of “(i) an engineered archaeal strain to produce methyl-coenzyme M reductase from unculturable anaerobic methanotrophs for capturing methane and secreting acetate; (ii) micro-organisms from methane-acclimated sludge (including Paracoccus denitrificans) to facilitate electron transfer by providing electron shuttles (confirmed by replacing the sludge with humic acids), and (iii) Geobacter sulfurreducens to produce electrons from acetate, to create a microbial fuel cell that converts methane directly into significant electrical current.” Each bacterium in the sludge performs its own specific role in the generation of electricity.

Unfortunately, bringing the microbial fuel cell into viable terms for the industrial scale is still ways away. Compared to other fuel cells, such as methanol for example, the cell produces about 1,000 times less electricity.

A basic diagram of a microbial fuel cell. Photo: Science Buddies

Sources: Science Daily, Nature Communications

About the Author
BA Environmental Studies
Kathryn is a curious world-traveller interested in the intersection between nature, culture, history, and people. She has worked for environmental education non-profits and is a Spanish/English interpreter.
You May Also Like
JUL 29, 2022
Space & Astronomy
Black Hole Found Lurking Outside Our Galaxy
JUL 29, 2022
Black Hole Found Lurking Outside Our Galaxy
A recent study conducted by an international collaboration of experts and published in Nature Astronomy have discovered ...
SEP 01, 2022
Earth & The Environment
Simulations Utilized to Study Earth-Cooling Strategies
SEP 01, 2022
Simulations Utilized to Study Earth-Cooling Strategies
In a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, an international team of researchers ...
SEP 06, 2022
Chemistry & Physics
New Evidence Expands Hypothesis About Neanderthal Paintings
SEP 06, 2022
New Evidence Expands Hypothesis About Neanderthal Paintings
In a 2021 study published in PNAS, an international team of researchers suggest that cave paintings found in Cueva de Ar ...
SEP 08, 2022
Chemistry & Physics
Boiling Away Forever Chemicals
SEP 08, 2022
Boiling Away Forever Chemicals
Forever chemicals are in hot water. In a paper published on August 18 in Science, researchers at the University of Calif ...
SEP 12, 2022
Earth & The Environment
Nature's 'Electric Grid' Uses Light to Accelerate Conductivity
SEP 12, 2022
Nature's 'Electric Grid' Uses Light to Accelerate Conductivity
In a recent study published in Nature Communications, a team of researchers led by Yale University discusses nature&rsqu ...
SEP 15, 2022
Infographics
The Domestication of Dogs
SEP 15, 2022
The Domestication of Dogs
Modern dogs, which have descended from a now-extinct lineage of wolves, are often called “man’s best friend& ...
Loading Comments...