Renewable Energy Wars: Living Microbial Electricity Generators Vs. The Nukes
The University of Michigan is poised to enter the exciting field of microbial waste management with an electrifying renewable energy twist. Researchers at the school have demonstrated that they can grow layers of electricity producing bacteria on films, deploying a scalable process that’s this close to achieving commercial viability.
So, in a world where you can grow your own power plant consisting of gelatinous films of bacteria that can generate electricity from waste, is there still a place for nuclear energy?
Bacterial Electricity Vs. Nuclear Electricity
The short answer is probably, though perhaps not for long, at least in some countries.
Here in the US, for example, nuclear energy has hit a brick wall. Despite its attraction as a zero emission energy producer, nuclear power plants are rapidly proving themselves to be high cost, high risk dinosaurs in a future populated by low risk, low cost renewable resources like wind and solar.
Two other factors working against the growth of nuclear energy in the US are the emergence of utility scale energy storage for wind and solar, along with the development of “virtual” power plants.
In another demonstration of the pushback against nuclear energy, New York State’s recent, controversial decision to ramp up subsidies for its existing nuclear plants is already facing legal challenges.
The prospects for new nuclear power plants in the US are further dimmed by the capability of local communities to oppose them, and the reluctance of elected representatives to rile up their electorates.
In other countries, the status of nuclear growth is somewhat brighter. That appears to be particularly so in China, where nuclear fan Bill Gates has focused the efforts of his TerraPower nuclear company under the mantle of low carbon advocacy.
It’s also worth noting that while large scale, conventional power plants are falling by the wayside, the US Energy Department has been eyeballing a next-generation approach that includes small scale, modular technology.
Renewable Electricity From Bacteria
That finally brings us around to the electric bacteria.
No, giant throbbing gelatinous masses of renewable, electricity generating bacteria will not replace nuclear power plants on a one for one basis. However, the new MSU research illustrates how the scope of the renewable energy field is far outrunning both nuclear and fossil fuel technologies.
The new MSU research, from the lab of microbiologist Gemma Reguera, is based on the bacteria Geobacter sulfurreducensr. The tiny bug possesses nanoscale, hairlike filaments of protein called pili, that act as powerlines (if that rings a bell, you may be thinking of similar research at the University of Massachusetts, covered by CleanTechnica here and here).
The waste treatment angle comes in when Geobacter breathes (yes, bacterial cells have to breathe). In Geobacter, the respiratory process involves metals and minerals: