Researchers at Michigan State University (MSU) have isolated and explained the phenomenon that causes microbes to generate electricity while cleaning up nuclear waste. The team is hoping to use their findings to create a microbial fuel cell that is capable of generating renewable energy while it cleans up environments exposed to nuclear waste. The bacteria the team studied is a kind of geobacter that is covered in a coat of tiny, natural nanowires that protect the bacteria from the toxic materials. The nanowires are also the essential elements in immobilizing radioactive material and preventing it from seeping into the groundwater. While completing the complex task of stabilizing radioactive spills, the bacteria simultaneously creates energy that can be harnessed and used as a zero-emissions power supply.

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To study their findings the team took their research into the real world to a uranium mill tailings site in Rifle, Colorado where toxic spills had been documented. The MSU team released acetate — geobacter’s favorite food — into the groundwater that stimulated the growth of geobacters already in the area. The small geobacter colony already existed but the acetate allowed it to grow to a size that was successful in stabilizing the toxic spill and keeping it from spreading — all the while producing electricity that the team hopes, in the future, won’t go to waste.

“Our findings clearly identify nanowires as being the primary catalyst for uranium reduction.They are essentially performing nature’s version of electroplating with uranium, effectively immobilizing the radioactive material and preventing it from leaching into groundwater,” said Gemma Reguera a MSU microbiologist.

Reguera and her team were successful in genetically modifying the geobacter strain to increase their nanowire productivity and are currently filing for a patent on their research. The next step is developing that toxic waste-cleaning, energy producing, bacterial fuel cell.

Via Science Daily