A Penn State led team of international researchers has taken the first step in converting methane directly to electricity using bacteria, in a way that could be done near natural gas drilling sites.

Thomas K. Wood, holder of the biotechnology endowed chair and professor of chemical engineering at Penn State explains one motive, “Currently, we have to ship methane via pipelines. When you ship methane, you release a greenhouse gas. We can’t eliminate all the leakage, but we could cut it in half if we didn’t ship it via pipe long distances.”

There are other motives as well, such as making use of gas that is stranded away from pipelines.

The team’s research paper reporting the results of their work has been published in Nature Communications.

Micrograph of a synthetic bacterium that manufactures the chemical needed to capture electrons.  Image Credit: Thomas K. Wood / Penn State University. Click image for the largest view.

The researchers’ goal is to use microbial fuel cells to convert methane into electricity near the wellheads, eliminating long-distance transport. That goal is still far in the future, but they now have created a bacteria-powered fuel cell that can convert the methane into small amounts of electricity.

Wood said, “People have tried for decades to directly convert methane. But they haven’t been able to do it with microbial fuel cells. We’ve engineered a strain of bacteria that can.”

Microbial fuel cells convert chemical energy to electrical energy using microorganisms. They can run on most organic material, including wastewater, acetate and brewing waste. Methane, however, causes some problems for microbial fuel cells because, while there are bacteria that consume methane, they live in the depths of the ocean and are not currently culturable in the laboratory.

“We know of a bacterium that can produce an energy enzyme that grabs methane. We can’t grow them in captivity, but we looked at the DNA and found something from the bottom of the Black Sea and synthesized it,” he said.

The researchers actually created a consortium of bacteria that produces electricity because each bacterium does its portion of the job. Using synthetic biological approaches, including DNA cloning, the researchers created a bacterium like those in the depths of the Black Sea, but one they can grow in the laboratory.

This bacterium uses methane and produces acetate, electrons and the energy enzyme that grabs electrons. The researchers also added a mixture of bacteria found in sludge from an anaerobic digester – the last step in waste treatment. This sludge contains bacteria that produce compounds that can transport electrons to an electrode, but these bacteria needed to be acclimated to methane to survive in the fuel cell.
“We need electron shuttles in this process,” said Wood. “Bacteria in sludge act as those shuttles.”

Once electrons reach an electrode, the flow of electrons produces electricity. To increase the amount of electricity produced, the researchers used a naturally occurring bacterial genus – Geobacter, which consumes the acetate created by the synthetic bacteria that captures methane to produce electrons.

To show that an electron shuttle was necessary, the researchers ran the fuel cell with only the synthetic bacteria and Geobacter. The fuel cell produced no electricity. They added humic acids – a non-living electron shuttle – and the fuel cells worked. Bacteria from the sludge are better shuttles than humic acids because they are self-sustaining.

The researchers have filed provisional patents on this process.

“This process makes a lot of electricity for a microbial fuel cell,” said Wood. “However, at this point that amount is 1,000 times less than the electricity produced by a methanol fuel cell.”

That’s an honest comparison that we don’t often see. But let’s not overlook the breakthrough aspects of the work. This is methane straight to electricity. Methane is abundant, cleaner than many fuels and often found way out there where the economics for pipelining is uneconomic. That makes further pursuit worth the effort, which is a lot better than still looking for an method that works. Congratulations are in order with encouragement for more development. Cohabitating bacteria is an idea that has quite interesting potentials.


1 Comment so far

  1. Jagdish Dhall on May 31, 2017 12:46 PM

    I think that a fuel cell would be a good way to convert methane to electricity. We should be working to optimise the use of methane/methanol/dimethyl ether as fuels for fuel cells.

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