Dec. 1, 2006 -- 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.
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."
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.