With recent advances in biology, materials, computing, and engineering, environmental biotechnologists now are able to use microbial communities for a wealth of services to society. These include detoxifying contaminated water, wastewater, sludge, sediment, or soil; capturing renewable energy from biomass; sensing contaminants or pathogens; and protecting the public from dangerous exposure to pathogens.
Rittmann's center puts some of these technologies into service, identifying microorganisms that help clean up pollutants such as trichloroethene (TCE) and perchlorate from the water supply and generating electricity from wastewater.
"Scientifically, it might be easiest to let the microbes convert the energy is organic wastes directly to electricity. However, they also can generate useful fuels, such as methane and hydrogen, and we are pursuing research on all of these renewable-energy forms."
Rittmann believes the key to achieving success through microbial ecology and biotechnology is to take advantage of microbial diversity as much as possible, particularly having different microbe to perform the same role. "It usually isn't just one organism, a superbug or magic bullet," says Rittmann. "Instead, the best results require a community of microorganisms."
Rittmann is motivated by the huge benefits that environmental biotechnology and microbial communities can bring to society. "I think if we could succeed in capturing the energy out of waste materials, this would be a world-transforming technology and a real step forward to using more renewable forms of energy and much less reliance on fossil fuel."