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Question Your World: Can Living Things Provide Energy for Our World?

The energy conversation here on Earth is very important because it has applications in nearly every aspect of our lives. Everything from the medical industry to waste management to technology and even entertainment are all subject to greater energy demands. Plants have created a way of fueling their lives by the things in their surroundings, sunlight, atmosphere, and the soil. Could we use nature as an inspiration? Can we use living things to provide energy for our world? Listen to this Question Your World radio report produced by the Science Museum of Virginia to learn more.

In recent years there have been some pretty cool ideas put on the table in regards to the energy situation. Scientists have been working on harnessing energy from both human-made technology and naturally occurring methods. However, recently, scientists at Harvard stumbled upon something that could be a strange new addition to the energy conversation. In their study they discovered an organism that naturally steals electrons off atoms in its surrounding area to meet its energy needs. Pretty amazing, an animal that actively uses direct electricity to sustain its life. While here we are eating food for our energy needs, all day long. We have breakfast, second breakfastlunch, dinner, and so on. However, this remarkable little creature is allowing us to see a very strange alternative to the standard way of getting energy.

The easy to remember and cleverly named bacterium, Rhodopseudomonas is partially photosynthetic and is capable of a process called Extracellular Electron Transfer (EET) in which is actually can yank an electron off the atoms below it in the soil. The Earth's crust is rich in elements from its initial creation. This particular organism can isolate electrons off the individual atoms below and use them to provide energy for itself; this is an active survival decision.

There's a second more remarkable part to this story though. Once you steal an electron off an atom you will have made it unstable. These naturally occurring atomic compositions want to be complete, they want to have their outer ring of electrons remain as is. When an electron is removed from its natural atomic architecture the atom will bond with another atom to off set the void in its outer electron orbit. The merging of these atoms will sometimes create a new crystal to form. Here is where this bacteria becomes even more interesting. During the process of EET the consumed electron allows for the atoms below to crystalize which in turn acts as a circuit to further help the bacteria extract more electrons from further away! So, this organism not only can steal electrons, but in the wake of its consumption it leaves behind an environment which is created to further propel its electric transfer task.

This naturally occurring bacteria and its electric capabilities are fascinating because its yet another alternative to the standard means of energy consumption. The further and more complete study of Rhodopseudomonas could one day lead to a breakthrough in the energy needs of the medical community, waste management, nanotechnology, power distribution, you name it!

Hmm...an organism that moves into an environment and starts to physically alter its surrounding area to suit its own needs? Sounds kind of familiar...

Article by: Prabir Mehta Science Museum of Virginia

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