A Next Generation Energy Source: Organic Batteries Made of Plastic-Eating Fungus

Thursday, 08 September 2016 - 12:15PM
Thursday, 08 September 2016 - 12:15PM
A Next Generation Energy Source: Organic Batteries Made of Plastic-Eating Fungus
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Since the beginning of human history, fire has consistently been a reliable source of advancement. First we used it to cook our food, allowing our brains more access to nutrients and accelerating our intellectual evolution. Later we used it to form new materials from clay to iron, and now we use it to propel our vehicles.

But while fire is convenient, it is by no means the only option. In recent years, with climate change really starting to rear its ugly head, it is becoming more and more apparent that we need to shift away from fire and onto better sources of energy. And sure, we've made some progress, what with electric cars and heaters becoming more common, but the electricity powering all of our devices still comes from burning carbon. We need a better way of generating our power.
Enter microbial fuel cells. These simple little devices come in a variety of shapes, sizes and styles, and can do so much more than just produce our power. To start, you can run them using almost any carbon source. If it rots, it can be used as fuel. Not only that, but using different configurations, you can use them to desalinate water, generate hydrogen or methane, or even synthesize drugs for you. Best of all, you can incorporate plants into your design and now you have a literal living solar panel. The plant captures carbon, deposits some into the soil for the microbes to eat and turn into power. No silicon required, and if you use food plants, you get a tasty snack while you're at it.

This technology isn't new, but development up until now has been fairly slow. The problem was that the materials to make better electrodes have only recently become readily available so cells were only capable of generating small amounts of power. Now with materials more available, as well as a better understanding of the microbes that are actually producing the power, microbial fuel cells are beginning to see vast improvements. We've already begun to see these devices applied at an industrial scale. Sewage treatment plants have started to integrate microbial fuel cells into their waste processing facilities to generate some of the power to run the facility, cutting their energy costs. Soon, improved versions of these cells, built with the next generation of carbon materials, could be powering your home.
Generation of power is important, but one aspect that almost everyone overlooks is power storage. Currently all the electricity in the power grid is produced as needed, but this often leads to an overproduction of power, much of which will just be lost and wasted. As of now, none of the excess power is stored for later use, so any damage to the power generation facility can mean extensive blackouts. If we stored power for later use, we would be able to more efficiently use the power we produce and, in case of an emergency, we would have more time to respond.
This issue is often overlooked because the battery technologies we have are either toxic or expensive (usually both). The standard for storing large amounts of power is lithium ion batteries, which are rechargeable and can hold a sizable amount of energy. But you don't need to look hard to see the potential problems. Their contents are flammable and often fairly toxic. And as a result of the amount of power they're holding, starting fires or small explosions is fairly easy. Worst of all, due to the risk of fire, they must be slowly charged to avoid damaging them. The cherry on top is that lithium is a limited resource, and its price is increasing rapidly. So obviously, we need a better alternative to lithium.
The next generation of batteries come in the form of a device called a supercapacitor. These devices are very similar to lithium batteries, but have a few key differences. They are almost entirely made of carbon so they're cheap to produce, they're water based so they can't light on fire, they can be made to be almost safe enough that you could eat them, and they charge in seconds to minutes instead of hours. Like the microbial fuel cells, these devices were mostly overlooked because of the materials available. Current commercially available supercapacitors are made with activated charcoal, the same stuff that's in water filters.This leads to bulky devices that hold very little power. However, with the discovery of carbon nanotubes, graphene, and other next generation carbon materials, this radically changed. Now supercapacitors are able to hold the same amount of power as lithium batteries, and will soon outperform them. Best of all, supercapacitors are much more stable than lithium batteries and can be charged and discharged thousands of times without loosing functionality.

It's clear that both microbial cells and supercapacitors will be at least one part of the future of power generation and storage. And because of this, they will both play important roles in the creative economy as more and more electronic devices hit the market. Best of all, both fields are largely unexplored so there is plenty of room for research and innovation.
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Since there are only a handful of programs in various universities that cover these devices, it may seem as though working with them is difficult or the programs are too advanced. Luckily, there is one such course at the Exosphere Academy—which will be taking place this January—that aims to change that. Unlike traditional courses where you sit in dusty lecture halls and listen to someone who half cares tell you about something you'll only ever half remember, Exosphere's microbial fuel cell course is entirely hands on. At Exosphere we learn by doing actual research in an fully equipped laboratory. If you've ever experienced the paradox of "well how am I supposed to get lab experience when you need to have previous lab experience to work in a lab?", this is the answer. And by the end you will be well versed in some of the most exciting up and coming technologies, from graphene to nanotubes and more. All are welcome, regardless of your background or previous knowledge. So long as you're willing to work and learn, we are happy to teach you.
This post by Justin Atkin is part of an ongoing series from our partners at Exosphere, a learning and problem solving community based in Brazil. To find out more and be a part of their cutting-edge educational programs visit them at http://exs.ph/microfuel 
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