Friday, December 26, 2008

Microbial Battery: Are dead people the new bamboo?

My friend, Bren, the hostess with the mostess of her blog Gee-ville Deals, sent me an early Christmas present with a link to a blog post about the possibilities of using the dead as food to power electronics. After doing some minor follow up on the internets it became clear that this is performance art, but with scientific fact mixed-in.

An interview with one of the Afterlife project researchers, James Auger, on We Make Money Not Art, is a great display of all of his projects and I encourage people to read it. My favorites are Augmented Animals and the Audio Tooth Implant, apparently much-talked on the web. I seem to remember an episode of "I Dream of Jeannie" that had the same dilemma of Major Healey having a tooth that picked up radio signals. The Afterlife Project is defined as thus:

Afterlife, an aid for the grieving process in a technologically mediated culture. It used to be featured on our website but after we came clean about the tooth implant we didn't want people to think that this project was of the same nature. We're collaborating with scientists and attempting to offer the service for real. Basically creating a microbial battery from the energy of a loved one that may then be used to power a range of electronic products.

This has Adbusters written all over it, but it was enticing enough for me to do some further digging on microbial batteries, and these are apparently already in use. Bestview blogspot blog has a summary of research done at UMass on a microbial battery that generates electricity from organic matter using bacterium called Rhodoferax ferrireducens. These "iron breathers" were placed in an enclosed container with a sugar solution and graphite and deposited protons which turned into current on the exposed end of the electrode. Funded by the Defense Department (of course), the applications include use as a way to generate electricity for low-power antennaes in areas where electricity might not be readily available. I like how Dr. Best, the author of Bestview, makes the distinction between the microbial battery and ethanol, stating, "instead of using organic matter to make a fuel, the battery...converts organic matter directly into electricity." This seems to take a step or two out of the costly and resource conuming process currently used to make ethanol.

The next hit on good old Google was a How Stuff Works article on the "Beer battery." Foster's brewery in Australia installed technology to use microbial batteries to generate a small amount of electricity and clean waste water. In the US, the New Belgium brewery in Colorado has been using this technology in addition to other green technologies in its brewing:
While the brewery uses wind power for most of its power needs (about 85 percent), the methane gas from the waste-water clean-up kicks in the remaining 15 percent.

And the HSW article says the brewery saves 3k on its monthly energy bills. Fascinating stuff.
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