Energy Innovation Brief
Issue 33 | September 21, 2023
In Western Canada and around the world, the energy sector is rapidly transforming to one that promises to be cleaner, greener and more efficient. Each month, the Canada West Foundation’s Energy Innovation Brief brings you stories about technology innovations happening across the industry – in oil and gas, renewables, energy storage and transmission. If you have an idea for a story, email us at:
Send in the Microbes!
Sometimes, you need to focus on the little things. And that’s exactly what we’re going to do in this month’s innovation brief. But we’re not talking about the importance of deep breathing or phoning your grandmother, we’re taking a look at microbes—tiny organisms that include bacteria, protozoa, archaea, algae and viruses.
Microbes were first identified in the 1600s when Robert Hooke and Antony van Leeuwenhoek started examining mold, pickled leeches and their own bodily fluids under a microscope. These days, microbes are used for everything from antibiotics and sourdough starters to extracting gold from toxic metals. In this issue of the EIB, we profile six ways that microbes are being used across the energy and natural resource sectors:
01| To produce electricity
02| To capture carbon and put it to beneficial use
03| To dispose of PET plastics
04| To produce bioplastics
05| To mine and refine resources
06| To dispose of waste
Microbes as living batteries
Most of the time when humans put microbes to work, we want them to eat something or to excrete something. Some bacteria, it turns out, can be induced to excrete electricity. Although this form of generating electricity is relatively expensive and not yet terribly efficient, its advantages—renewability, abundance and net-negative emissions—mean that many academic and private sector research groups continue to push the innovation envelope.
- Researchers at UBC Okanagan have succeeded in using fruit waste to power “microbial fuel cells.” The team fed pulverized organic matter (in this case, Granny Smith apples) to microbes in an anaerobic anode compartment. The specialized bacteria ‘exhale’ electrons and hydrogen that bond with oxygen to produce water, and the chemical reaction generates bioelectricity. Though the energy output is small, the project represents an opportunity to generate power while also reducing the abundant organic material in landfills or from agricultural and food industry waste.
- Electron-releasing bacteria can be harnessed in the wild. Researchers at the University of California Santa Cruz have developed an extremely low voltage ‘mud battery’ that uses electrical outputs from naturally-occurring soil bacteria. These microbial batteries are then used to power low-voltage and low-cost soil moisture monitors that could help farmers water their crops more efficiently.
- Bacteria are even teaching us how to generate electricity from thin air. Scientists at the University of Massachusetts found that a number of bacteria types naturally grow protein “nanowires” that transfer electrons to other bacteria or to other receptors in their environments. The researchers have developed a mesh out of the bacteria nanowires that can generate electricity if exposed to moisture in the air.
Manipulating microbes to capture and harness the power of carbon
Microbes can be used to capture carbon dioxide and convert it to beneficial uses, from enriching soil to making ‘self-repairing’ wood.
- California-based startup Andes is looking to pay farmers to put carbon-capturing microbes in their fields alongside the seeds for their crops. These naturally occurring microbes establish themselves amongst the roots of the plants, absorbing CO2 from both the roots and the atmosphere and converting it into minerals such as calcium carbonate and magnesium carbonate. This both improves the health of the soil and sequesters the captured CO2 long-term. Andes then makes its money by selling carbon credits.
- Cyanobacteria that can eat and store CO2 faster than any species yet discovered have been found in an Italian volcanic hot spring. These bacteria also have the unique attribute of sinking in water. Taken together, these two properties could allow for the creation of reusable carbon capture ponds, because the carbon could be easily collected and removed.
- Michigan State and Purdue University have teamed up to create a new “living wood” infused with carbon-consuming microbes that will excrete biomaterials that will strengthen the wood, make it more fire resistant and even repair damage sustained over time.
Microbes munching away our PET plastic problems…
Because plastics are synthesized by humans, microbes have not naturally evolved to break them down. With the proliferation of plastic waste, however, microbes are adapting. In 2016, Japanese researchers discovered bacteria outside a bottle-recycling facility that were capable of breaking down and metabolizing (i.e., eating) polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic (which represents approximately 20% of global plastic waste) via specialized enzymes. Since 2016, bioengineers have found more plastic-eating specimens and uncovered ways to enhance the breakdown of plastics.
- In 2021 French firm Carbios opened a demonstration plant to test the feasibility of using enzymes derived from bacteria to recycle PET plastic. The plastic produced by the plant currently costs twice as much as virgin (newly created and unrecycled) PET and a third more than mechanically recycled PET, but Carbios estimates the process also produces 30% less emissions than virgin PET production.
- Swiss microbiologists have found bacteria growing on plastic in the Alps and the Arctic. Unlike other microbes, these hardy specimens can break down plastics at temperatures as low as 15 degrees Celsius. This may help reduce the heating needs of enzyme recycling facilities, making the process cheaper and less energy intensive.
- In a collaboration between the MIT Media Lab Space Exploration Initiative, Harvard Medical School, and Seed Health, microbes have been sent into space to live on the International Space Station. The experiment will assess how the microbes perform to upcycle raw PET products in space. The results could someday be used by future space missions that would rely on microbes to manufacture materials needed in zero-gravity environments.
…and excreting bioplastics
In addition to eating old plastic, microbes are also used to produce new biodegradable bioplastics. There are numerous barriers to the widespread adoption of bioplastics, but these microbe-produced plastics are breaking new ground in the industry.
- Researchers at the University of Washington are making compostable plastic from cyanobacteria cells (spirulina). This plastic is fire resistant, recyclable, and (if it doesn’t make it to a recycling facility) will compost as quickly as a banana peel (or in about two years).
- Experts at the Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory have manipulated E.coli to turn sugars into a 100% recyclable PDK (poly(diketoenamine)) plastic, a type of plastic that is “infinitely recyclable” with no loss in quality. The researchers believe that “with even modest improvements,” their product will be both cheaper and emit less CO2 than PDK plastics made with petroleum products.
- Australian startup ULUU is feeding bacteria seaweed to make them excrete a compostable polymer. Using seaweed as a feedstock for the bacteria has several advantages, including oxygenating the ocean, not requiring arable land, and being cheaper and growing faster than standard bioplastic crops such as maize and corn.
Using microbes to pluck the gold out of the dross
Microbes can even help extract resources such as hydrogen and rare minerals in ways that are both cost efficient and less energy intensive.
- U.S. startup Cemvita has discovered a microbe that can consume trapped or abandoned oil and produce hydrogen from depleted wells. Lab tests and pilots indicate that production costs may be less than $1.00 per kilogram, which would make it among the world’s cheapest hydrogen sources.
- Scientists at the Technical University of Munich identified microbes that can recover and recycle rare earth elements. Although still in early stages, this process could eventually be used for the recovery of elements from wastewater produced by the mining, electronic and chemical catalyst sectors.
- Researchers at Penn State have applied similar principles for separating rare earth elements from one another. Currently the separation of rare earth elements requires dozens of steps and relies on toxic chemicals. However, the researchers have isolated a protein found in bacteria from English oak buds that is able to differentiate between rare earths. The team has used this characteristic to separate rare earths in a single step, at room temperature and without any organic solvents.
And getting rid of waste
As it turns out, microbes can eat just about everything.
- Sewage treatment facilities have long relied on bacteria, using aeration to induce them to metabolize waste. However, this process is expensive. New facilities use combinations of bacteria that allow for less aeration and more efficient waste processing. Environmental engineers at Columbia University are building on these techniques to extract valuable substances such as methanol and polymers in the process—which could help bring down the net cost further.
- Researchers at Northwestern University have developed a sustainable and inexpensive process for upcycling fibrous plant matter that would normally be burned or buried. By feeding the organic waste to microbes in a biorefinery, the researchers were able to break it down into useful substances such as flavonoids and carbon nanoparticles.
- Some bacteria can even process elements of radioactive waste, University of Manchester researchers found. Some nuclear wastes are composed of cellulose which, under alkaline conditions, can decompose to form isosaccharinic acid (ISA). ISA forms a soluble compound with uranium that helps it escape storage facilities. However, the discovered bacteria can consume ISA, which helps ensure that radioactive waste remains properly contained.
As you can see from the stories above, there’s a huge variety of potential applications where microbes can do a job more efficiently, with fewer emissions, more cheaply, or eliminating the need for more toxic approaches. And many times it is all of the above at once. We didn’t want to finish this brief without naming one more company doing innovative work in this space: Alberta’s own AdvancedAg, which is putting bacteria to work for improvements in soil, water and agriculture all at once.
The Energy Innovation Brief is compiled by Ryan Workman and Marla Orenstein. If you like what you see, subscribe to our mailing list and share with a friend. If you have any interesting stories for future editions, please send them to .