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Iron-oxidizing bacteria could be used to convert electricity into biofuel

By David Szondy
January 31, 2013

What do bacteria, wind turbines and solar panels have to do with one another? Nothing ... unless you can teach the bacteria to “breathe” electricity and turn it into biofuel. That’s still a very long way off, but a team of researchers at the BioTechnology Institute at the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities have found a method for growing iron-oxidizing bacteria by feeding it electricity. It’s primarily a way to better study a recently-discovered type of bacteria, but it also holds the promise of turning electricity into biofuel.

The bacteria in question is Mariprofundus ferrooxydans PV-1. It’s an aerobic bacteria that was first found in deep ocean volcanic vents, but has since been discovered in estuarine and marine habitats all over the world. According to the team, the fact that it prefers to live at the interface where an aerobic environment meets an anaerobic one makes it difficult to study, because of the many problems involved in its cultivation.

Mariprofundus is one of a group of bacteria responsible for what is known as “biocorrosion.” We tend to think of rusting iron as being a simple chemical process, but a surprising amount is caused by bacteria. If you look at images of the wreck of the RMS Titanic, you’ll see what looks like brownish-red melted wax streaming down the hull. These structures are “rusticles” and they are formed by a bacteria similar to Mariprofundus. The process also occurs in places much closer to home, with bacteria happily munching away in caves and on steel pipelines, bridges, piers, and ships.

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