By Anthony McLennan / Tabu News
A sediment organism discovered in the muddy banks of the Potomac River in the United Stated is able to create electricity out of the air and could be a game-changer in terms of how households are powered in the future.

Originally, it was found that in the in the absence of oxygen, the bacterial organism – scientifically known as Geobacter sulfurreducens – was able to produce Magnetite, a rock mineral that can be used in magnets.

However, a team of scientists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have recently discovered that the organism – which was first uncovered more than three decades ago – actually has the ability to create bacterial nanowires, which can absorb water vapour from the air.

This has enabled them to build a device that they have named the ‘Air-gen’. The Air-gen is made up of a thin film of nanowires (seven micrometres thick), which are placed between two electrodes and exposed to air.

This enables the contraption to generate a continuous electrical current.

“We are literally making electricity out of thin air,” explained Jun Yao, an electrical engineer from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “The Air-gen generates clean energy 24/7.”

Previous attempts to make hydro-voltaic power had only been able to produce brief bursts of electricity, lasting for just a few seconds.

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But according to Yao, the organism found in the Potomac River has the ability to create a continuous current.

“I found that exposure to atmospheric humidity was essential and that protein nanowires absorbed water, producing a voltage gradient across the device,” he said.

“A maintained moisture gradient, which is fundamentally different to anything seen in previous systems, explains the continuous voltage output from our nanowire device.”

The challenge with the Air-gen as it currently stands is that it can only produce tiny amounts of power. But the goal, for now, is to scale things up by connecting multiple devices, which could foremostly be used to charge smartphones and other small electronic devices.

Looking further down the line, the plan is to incorporate the bacterial nanowire into the wall paint in houses to produce power in more practical amounts for households.

“Once we get to an industrial scale for wire production, I fully expect that we can make large systems that will make a major contribution to sustainable energy production,” Yao said.

There is another major issue to overcome, in that there is a limit to the amount of nanowire which the Geobacter sulfurreducens organism can produce.

But there is potentially a way to get around that – by genetically manipulating other bacteria, such as the commonly known E. coli, to be able to produce the same characteristics as Geobacter sulfurreducens – but in much larger supplies.

Image credit: UMass Amherst/Yao and Lovley labs.