An Answer to the World's Energy Problems?

The smallest creatures on the planet may help solve one of the world's biggest problems, according to a new report from a distinguished panel of scientists.

Microorganisms, better known as bacteria, could be used to convert various materials into fuel to run our cars, heat to warm our homes, and even electricity to power our toys.

Imagine that.

A cell phone that never loses power because its "battery" consists of millions of tiny bugs chomping on lunch, cranking out electrons for a continuous flow of electrical current.

Sound far-fetched? You bet.

Impossible? It's already being done, on a very small scale. And much research will have to be done if this bold concept is to become a reality.

But experts convened by the American Academy of Microbiology concluded that given enough time, and a little luck, microorganisms could be part of the key to our energy future.

The panel met in San Francisco last March and has just released a report, Microbial Energy Conversion, claiming that the concept is realistic.

The idea may sound like science fiction, but that's the way many fuels are already produced by nature.

The next time you pass a landfill, take a deep breath. The stench you smell is from the production of methane by microorganisms that alter the chemical nature of the trash they eat, thus emitting gas that can be used for a wide variety of purposes.

So the microbiologists are suggesting that we simply find ways to accelerate that process and generate new sources of energy ranging from petroleum substitutes to hydrogen.

The latter, by the way, would require only water and sunlight and the right bacteria, but the process is tricky.

Byproducts are both hydrogen and oxygen, and when those two gases are combined, they explode with enormous power.

The main engine on the space shuttle is powered by hydrogen and oxygen.

So there's a few problems with this one, but that doesn't mean it's impractical.

The report points out that perhaps the right bacteria might produce oxygen and hydrogen at different times, or in separate locations, thus avoiding catastrophe.

This is an emerging field, and so much has to be done that experts aren't even sure which types of bacteria are most suitable for converting such things as algae into a useable fuel.

And perhaps it might be possible to develop new types of bugs that produce far more desirable byproducts from the same food that other microorganisms would use to promote their own growth.

What's needed, the microbiologists say, is a national program on the scale of the Manhattan Project that produced the first nuclear bombs.

That could lead to sources of power that could be located where they are most needed, and new types of fuels that would be essentially inexhaustible and clean.

"All these futuristic energy technologies may become reality some day, thanks to the work of the smallest living creatures on Earth: microorganisms," the report says. "'Microbial energy conversion' is the shorthand term for technologies like these. In microbial energy technologies, microorganisms make fuels out of raw organic materials, thereby converting the chemical energy in the biomass into chemical energy in the form of ethanol or hydrogen, for example."

The boldest part of the proposal is the microbial fuel cell, "a bioreactor in which bacteria transform the chemical energy in biomass directly into electrical energy."

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