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Microbes Produce Power As They Clean Nuclear Waste 90

Posted by samzenpus
from the two-in-one dept.
An anonymous reader writes "Researchers at Michigan State University (MSU) have isolated and explained the phenomenon that causes microbes to generate electricity while cleaning up nuclear waste. The team is hoping to use their findings to create a microbial fuel cell that is capable of generating renewable energy while it cleans up environments exposed to nuclear waste. The bacteria the team studied is a kind of geobacter that is covered in a coat of tiny, natural nanowires that protect the bacteria from the toxic materials. While completing the complex task of stabilizing radioactive spills, the bacteria simultaneously creates energy that can be harnessed and used as a zero-emissions power supply."
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Microbes Produce Power As They Clean Nuclear Waste

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  • by wsxyz (543068) on Thursday September 08, 2011 @12:32AM (#37336294)
    Now if we can only find a bacterium that converts sunlight into nuclear waste we'll have near infinite clean energy!
  • by Anonymous Coward

    How is this renewable energy??? is there a constant influx of nuclear waste?? oh yes there is... sorry, my bad

  • by JoshuaZ (1134087) on Thursday September 08, 2011 @12:42AM (#37336354) Homepage
    Note that what is going on is essentially chemical, not nuclear. That is, the bacteria are getting energy out by chemical processes of elements that happen to be radioactive. If one had a sample of pure uranium 238 (which is radioactive but only a tiny bit so, with a very very long halflife) these bacteria would act identically. And if one could magically make uranium not radioactive the behavior of these bacteria would not change at all.
    • Yep - that's the problem with nuclear waste material: Putting them into different
      molecules doesn't make the atoms less radioactive. Only time (or, in some very
      specific cases, neutron irradiation) will do that.

      What this does is turning radioactive waste into living radioactive waste...
      • by tinkerton (199273) on Thursday September 08, 2011 @02:05AM (#37336684)

        What this does is turning radioactive waste into living radioactive waste...
        It's better than that. While the value of the bacteria generating energy seems utterly irrelevant, the bacteria do provide opportunities to concentrate the nuclear material , in other words, to remove it from the environment, and that's valuable. And maybe there is some minor value in the energy part, it could be a measure of activity.

    • by Required Snark (1702878) on Thursday September 08, 2011 @02:08AM (#37336698)
      How it behaves. from TFA

      “Our findings clearly identify nanowires as being the primary catalyst for uranium reduction.They are essentially performing nature’s version of electroplating with uranium, effectively immobilizing the radioactive material and preventing it from leaching into groundwater,” said Gemma Reguera a MSU microbiologist.

      The bacteria take uranium out of solution and turn it into nanowires outside their outer membrane. They have tested it outside in a uranium mine tailings pile. The goal is to build a bacterial water treatment cell that produces electricity while it filters out dissolved uranium.

      This is not for generating power, the energy produced is a by-product. I doubt that the resultant energy would pay for it's own production. However, the electricity could be used to help pump water through the system, which is a neat trick and will help to reduce cleanup costs.

      • This is not for generating power, the energy produced is a by-product. I doubt that the resultant energy would pay for it's own production. However, the electricity could be used to help pump water through the system, which is a neat trick and will help to reduce cleanup costs.

        I very much doubt it would be even worth that much. The article source(s) are very scant on details, but one of the many tricky aspects of constructing any microbial battery is engineering a system that would effectively and efficiently separate charges in a way that can be usefully harnessed. But even if they should solve the problem of developing good cathode/anode pairs, the conditions these bugs are expected to work under would not be expected to approach a remotely useful energy density.

      • by toQDuj (806112)

        so when the concentration of bacteria becomes too high, they become supercritical and will explode? nice..

        • Seriously?

          If they could enrich the uranium as well, that'd be quite a feat. Somehow I doubt that the bacterium would make their own tiny centrifuges though...
          • by smithmc (451373) *

            Seriously? If they could enrich the uranium as well, that'd be quite a feat. Somehow I doubt that the bacterium would make their own tiny centrifuges though...

            Maybe U-235 tastes better than U-238...

        • so when the concentration of bacteria becomes too high, they become supercritical and will explode?

          No, they just form into a giant fire-breathing lizard.

  • just add nuclear waste

  • I guess it's time to nuke mars and infect the tires of the next rover with these things.
  • by LifesABeach (234436) on Thursday September 08, 2011 @02:50AM (#37336864)
    FTFA, “Our findings clearly identify nanowires as being the primary catalyst for uranium reduction.They are essentially performing nature’s version of electroplating with uranium, effectively immobilizing the radioactive material and preventing it from leaching into groundwater,”

    The biggest bleeding hemorrhoid of New Clear Power is the Radio Waste. Filter the radio active part away from the trash, and the trash can recycled. The Radio Active Waste part can then be recombined into something else that is useful. I was thinking of expensive blast furnaces with a combination of fractionating columns. But if some type of Bacteria can do the job, all be it one atom at a time, then my giant blast furnace patent could be in real jeopardy. So this now begs the question, how could one test it? Maybe a road trip to Chernobyl?
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Now if only people would shoot themselves in their foot, and be sacrificial fodder for the greater good, we could force them to spend exorbitant amounts of their dollars into making nanowires, improved syntheic bacteria based on the ones the researchers used.

    Why aren't anyone shooting their own foot for the greater good?!! People are so selfish.

    BTW I won't shoot my own foot because I genuinely need it. So don't blame me. There are people who can afford to shoot themselves in the foot. Ask them to pay for it

  • by nojayuk (567177) on Thursday September 08, 2011 @06:31AM (#37337836)

    Uranium generally isn't a problem in radioactive spills or contamination. It's not particularly biotoxic as a metal or oxide and with very long half-lives for the two most common isotopes (U-235's half-life is 700 million years and for U-238 it's 4.5 billion years) it's not even very radioactive by itself. Most uranium ore bodies contain a lot of decay products like radium, thorium, polonium etc. which have built up over millions or billions of years and these are exposed to the wider environment when the uranium ore is mined and refined. A method of concentrating and sequestering such short-halflife isotopes from mine tailings would be more useful than this biological method which only, it seems, concentrates uranium. Right now the Japanese would really like a variant that, say, concentrated cesium in a similar manner as Cs-134 and Cs-137 are 99.9% of the contamination problem in the area around Fukushima.

    It might be this particular form of the bacteria could be better used to extract uranium from lesser ore bodies or even seawater where it is present in quantities of about 3 tonnes per cubic kilometre but right now and for the next fifty years or more uranium ore is plentiful enough that the costs of such marginal operations would outweigh the value of uranium metal (currently trading on world markets for 60 dollars a kilo) extracted by them.

    Of course uranium has a scary reputation -- see this [news-journalonline.com] news report for an example. Further comments suggest the uranium in question was 500 milligrammes of yellowcake in a sealed vial, a gift from a friend studying chem eng who had prepared it from ore found in New Mexico (just lying about out in the open! Horrors!).

    • by trout007 (975317)

      To prove your point where did the uranium come from in the first place? It came from whatever past supernovas made up the dust and gas that made up our solar system. So it has at least been around at least 5 billion years maybe more. Like you said it is the radiation that is the problem and having such a long half life is good. I means every once in a while it decays and the radiation is very little compared with background radiation. The short half life stuff on the order of days and weeks isn't that bad e

  • 1. Wacky new source of power reported that will POWER ALL THE THINGS!
    2. Never heard about again
    3. "What ever happened to that what's it called? The thing? The- ah, never mind..."

  • Reguera has filed patents to build on her research, which could lead to the development of microbial fuel cells capable of generating electricity while cleaning up after environmental disasters.

    Way to speed up the process of building tools to protect people from disasters!

  • by Doc Ruby (173196) on Thursday September 08, 2011 @09:25AM (#37339190) Homepage Journal

    This is excellent research. I noticed in the picture of the MSU research team [msu.edu] that they're all women. I hope they can inspire more women to join the scientific research community. We need more people in it, and women are the majority of people. Without getting closer to 50:50 gender parity, we're losing the talent and hard work of a large fraction of the people pool we need to draw from. More role models will get more women to follow suit, just as they do for men.

  • Not entirely sure I understand it, but does this mean they can clean up depleted uranium/ nuclear waste? That would be awesome.
  • The scientific inaccuracies in the summation and the article are the result of OP posting a science article from an design fetishist SEO content farm site. Hard to get the science right when you are masturbating to "100 Danish Pendant Lamps"...
  • We must make sure we keep this out of enemy hands. The Daleks could reclaim their planet Skaro from the Thals with this technology.

  • nuff said!

  • Proof that we're living in The Future. Ghost in the Shell fans will recognize the Japanese Miracle [wikipedia.org] in action. The '30s should be an interesting decade...
  • Hoping good results coming out.

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