An Answer to the World's Energy Problems?

The report notes that "a number of bacterial species are able to couple the oxidation of organic matter to the transfer of electrons to an electrode, thereby producing electricity."

Early experiments have been pretty impressive, approaching 80 percent efficiency, and occasionally 95 percent, but they have been small in scale.

At this point, the panel suggests, this emerging technology may be most useful in powering electrical devices in hard-to-reach areas, like on the seafloor.

Scaling the technology up may prove impractical, partly because the process is painfully slow.

The report notes that this technology is "in its infancy," and current systems have a very low yield.

"But the potential to make great leaps of progress in yield and performance is great," the report says.

Some products of microbial energy conversion are already in the marketplace, like biodiesel, a substitute for petroleum-based diesel fuel.

But the report warns that biodiesel emissions are dirtier than emissions from regular diesel, so that may not be the best trade-off.

Ethanol is also produced commercially, but the report notes that "current technologies recover roughly 60 percent of the energy in raw biomass," usually corn or wood.

Theoretically, that figure should be closer to 90 percent.

It may be possible to use microorganisms to harvest energy from sources that are now either inconveniently located or too costly to develop.

Perhaps the right organisms might convert coal to methane, for example, thus allowing the extraction of gas without digging up the landscape, the report suggests.

One inescapable conclusion is that this is going to take a lot of bugs, and a lot of different types of bugs.

Is there a "superbug" out there that could do all this conversion for us, thus streamlining the process? Probably not, the report says.

Different bugs do different things, and dine on different materials, and produce different byproducts. And at this point, it's uncertain just which bugs are best for which chores.

So this is very much an emerging technology. And it's not likely to solve all our problems.

The answer to our energy future certainly follows many avenues, drawing from many sources.

The sad part of it all is the guys with the fattest wallets and the most political clout will probably get the most attention and the largest slice of the research pie.

Find more oil. Build more huge power plants that rely on nonrenewable resources. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.

Maybe we ought to give the bugs a shot at it.

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