"While conceptually simple, there are significant hurdles to overcome before electricity-to-methane technology can be deployed at a large scale," said Bruce Logan, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Penn State. "That's because the underlying science of how these organisms convert electrons into chemical energy is poorly understood."
In 2009, Logan's lab was the first to demonstrate that a methanogen strain known as Methanobacterium palustre could convert an electrical current directly into methane. For the experiment, Logan and his Penn State colleagues built a reverse battery with positive and negative electrodes placed in a beaker of nutrient-enriched water.
The researchers spread a biofilm mixture of M. palustre and other microbial species onto the cathode. When an electrical current was applied, the M. palustre began churning out methane gas.
"The microbes were about 80 percent efficient in converting electricity to methane," Logan said.
The rate of methane production remained high as long as the mixed microbial community was intact. But when a previously isolated strain of pure M. palustre was placed on the cathode alone, the rate plummeted, suggesting that methanogens separated from other microbial species are less efficient than those living in a natural community.
"Microbial communities are complex," Spormann added. "For example, oxygen-consuming bacteria can help stabilize the community by preventing the build-up of oxygen gas, which methanogens cannot tolerate. Other microbes compete with methanogens for electrons. We want to identify the composition of different communities and see how they evolve together over time."
To accomplish that goal, Spormann has been feeding electricity to laboratory cultures consisting of mixed strains of archaea and bacteria. This microbial zoo includes bacterial spe
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