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A group of Chinese students have developed a microbial fuel cell (MFC) that can generate up to 80 hours of electricity after the addition of a spoonful of sugar.
The team, consisting of 17 students from Tianjin University and two high school students, adopted multi-cellular microbial consortia in their MFC to create a highly-efficient and stable electrical output, which won them a gold medal and the award for the best energy project at the 2015 International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Competition in September.
Research of single-strain MFC has been under way for years, but due to limited metabolic capacity and the strict requirement for cultivation, it has been difficult for a single species of electricigens to create highly-efficient electricity production.
Team leader Ling Wei, a pharmaceutical engineering student, said the most innovative part of their research was to genetically modify bacterial strains from three species, namely E. coli, Shewanella and B. subtilis, into an MFC system.
"It is innovative because no one before has ever tried to make a microbial fuel cell (MFC) out of three species of microbes. In this way, we can replenish two elements that the electricigens need for electricity production by mixing different microbes, and it (our MFC) can reach a good level to generate electricity," said Ling.
Ling says that, compared to existing wind, water and solar power methods, their co-cultured system is more stable regardless of weather conditions or location, bringing the possibilities of optimising the method for future larger-scale power production.
"New energies such as solar and wind power have a low conversion rate, and perhaps because we are not capable enough to make use of them, the rate can only reach 20 percent. In regard to our MFC, it can produce electricity in a highly-efficient way, and can convert inorganic substances like salt, together with simple glucose, into electricity efficiently," said Ling.
The MFC they are working on can now reach an output of 520 millivolts (mV) for more than 80 hours after sugar or grass is added into the system.
Biomechanical engineer Liu Yue, a team advisor, said the group has lofty expectations for their highly-efficient battery.
"We hope to make the MFC much smaller, with longer electrical output and a larger quantity of electricity, so that it can be one of the new energies of the future, just like the lithium batteries we normally use in our daily life," said Liu.
The IGEM, a world's top synthetic biology competition, is held annually, gathering the industry's best students, educators and professionals to show their innovative new biologically-engineered systems that can tackle real world problems. — Reuters