The accelerating pace at which renewable power generation capacity using wind and solar photovoltaics is being introduced presents a growing challenge: wind and solar-based power generation is inherently intermittent, necessitating that energy must be stored and delivered independently from generation. This represents a significant inefficiency in the power system, reduces revenue from renewable power generation facilities and ultimately slows the roll out of this sustainable infrastructure. The capacity of today’s batteries is not suitable for the demand of the grid and batteries rely on the mining of rare earth metals, a process that is vastly detrimental to the environment.1EARTH.ORG. (2020). Earth.Org – Past | Present | Future. View Publication. Bio-powered energy storage represents an attractive alternative to this and can help to adapt and decentralize energy availability.2Salimijazi, F., Parra, E., & Barstow, B. (2019). Electrical energy storage with engineered biological systems. Journal of Biological Engineering, 13(1), 38. View Publication. Biological systems are able to store excess energy in the form of polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs), glycogen, and triglycerides, and then use it on demand. Some biological systems are even able to generate electricity or hydrogen gas. The inherent process of microbes to oxidize organic materials and generate electricity has led to the development of microbial fuel cells; scale up of this technology could enable remote, persistent power sources.3Kim, B. H., Chang, I. S., & Gadd, G. M. (2007). Challenges in microbial fuel cell development and operation. Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology, 76(3), 485–494. View Publication. This goal aims to capture potential opportunities to enhance biological energy storage and generation in order to protect from the environmental and human health impacts of current, unsustainable energy sources.
Breakthrough Capabilities & Milestones
Enable electricity production by engineered biological systems.
Improve microbial fuel cells to enhance electricity storage and generation.
Engineer biological electron transfer pathways (either in microbial or cell-free systems) that can efficiently interconvert electrons with biological reducing cofactors (e.g., NAD(P)H).
Engineer efficient metabolic and microbial electron transfer pathways to funnel biological reducing cofactors to biocathode, biofilms, or nanowires.
Develop a versatile microbial (or cell-free) electricity generation module that can efficiently couple any electrochemical oxidation reaction into electricity generation.
Produce and maintain stable, large scale “microbial batteries” with high capacity.
Enable biological systems to store and utilize excess electricity generated by (intermittent) renewable energy sources.
Identify, understand, and mitigate rate limiting steps in microbial extracellular electron transfer (EET).
Demonstrate cost-effective microbial electrosynthesis (MES) systems that convert renewable electricity and CO2 into C1 (e.g., methane; Jayathilake, 2022*) or multi-carbon molecules (e.g., alcohols).
Enable biological systems to produce hydrogen from renewable resources.
Develop biological electrosynthesis systems that can be directly connected to the power grid.
*Jayathilake, B. S., Chandrasekaran, S., Freyman, M. C., Deutzmann, J. S., Kracke, F., Spormann, A. M., Huang, Z., Tao, L., Pang, S. H., & Baker, S. E. (2022). Developing reactors for electrifying bio-methanation: A perspective from bio-electrochemistry. Sustainable Energy & Fuels, 6(5), 1249–1263. https://doi.org/10.1039/D1SE02041B
- EARTH.ORG. (2020). Earth.Org – Past | Present | Future. https://earth.org/rare-earth-mining-has-devastated-chinas-environment/
- Salimijazi, F., Parra, E., & Barstow, B. (2019). Electrical energy storage with engineered biological systems. Journal of Biological Engineering, 13(1), 38. https://doi.org/10.1186/s13036-019-0162-7
- Kim, B. H., Chang, I. S., & Gadd, G. M. (2007). Challenges in microbial fuel cell development and operation. Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology, 76(3), 485–494. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00253-007-1027-4
- Anand, A., Patel, A., Chen, K., Olson, C. A., Phaneuf, P. V., Lamoureux, C., Hefner, Y., Szubin, R., Feist, A. M., & Palsson, B. O. (2022). Laboratory evolution of synthetic electron transport system variants reveals a larger metabolic respiratory system and its plasticity. Nature Communications, 13(1), 3682. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-022-30877-5
- Sydow, A., Krieg, T., Mayer, F., Schrader, J., & Holtmann, D. (2014). Electroactive bacteria—Molecular mechanisms and genetic tools. Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology, 98(20), 8481–8495. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00253-014-6005-z
- Bar-Even, A., Noor, E., Lewis, N. E., & Milo, R. (2010). Design and analysis of synthetic carbon fixation pathways. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(19), 8889–8894. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0907176107
- Scheffen, M., Marchal, D. G., Beneyton, T., Schuller, S. K., Klose, M., Diehl, C., Lehmann, J., Pfister, P., Carrillo, M., He, H., Aslan, S., Cortina, N. S., Claus, P., Bollschweiler, D., Baret, J.-C., Schuller, J. M., Zarzycki, J., Bar-Even, A., & Erb, T. J. (2021). A new-to-nature carboxylation module to improve natural and synthetic CO2 fixation. Nature Catalysis, 4(2), 105–115. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41929-020-00557-y
- Hu, P., Chakraborty, S., Kumar, A., Woolston, B., Liu, H., Emerson, D., & Stephanopoulos, G. (2016). Integrated bioprocess for conversion of gaseous substrates to liquids. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(14), 3773–3778. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1516867113