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Using Microbes to Generate Electricity

From the lights in our houses to our mobile devices, we are an energized society. And future energy sources could come from some pretty unlikely places.

Dr. Lenny Tender, a research chemist at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), has co-invented a device, known as a benthic microbial fuel cell, that persistently generates electrical power in marine environments. The fuel cell is being developed to persistently operate oceanographic sensors.

“It’s able to generate electricity just like a windmill,” Tender said. “It’s an energy harvester.”

The fuel cell draws electricity from the sea floor, creating an interface between the sediment on the bottom of a marine environment and the overlying water.

“At the bottom of the marine environment we have sediment, and the mud at the bottom of a harbor, river, lake or the ocean actually has quite a bit of fuel in it,” says Tender. “If you can think of anything that has ever lived in the marine environment, phytoplankton, sea creatures, etc., when they die they settle on the sea floor. And like leaves on the lawn, they start decomposing. This represents a pretty potent fuel source. What we do is put electrodes into this already made battery.”

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