Bacteria That Help Power Computers? Navy Researchers Say It’s Possible

Geobacter. Image courtesy Office of Naval Research.Geobacter. Image courtesy Office of Naval Research.

A genetically modified soil bacteria is behind the creation of “nanowires” that conduct electricity and are more than 60,000 times thinner than a human hair, according to officials with the Office of Naval Research.

These microbial wires could in the future conduct power in tiny sensors, capacitors and transistors, and can be produced using green and renewable energy resources, and without harsh chemical processes, ONR said in a news release.

The research is sponsored by ONR and carried out by a team led by University of Massachusetts Amherst microbiologist Dr. Derek Lovley. Lovley is behind the development of Geobacter, the nanowire-producing bacteria. Alterations in the bacteria’s genetic makeup resulted in durable and unbelievably thin conductor wires, 1.5 nanometers wide. ONR officials said the nanowires could potentially be used to feed electrical currents to engineered microbes to create the alternative fuel butanol, a development that could make troops less reliant on conventional fuel, delivered to war zones via costly and dangerous convoys.

Other applications, according to the release, could include use in medical sensors used to monitor heart rate or kidney function, an application of the microbial wires’ sensitivity to changes in pH levels. They could also help to power microbe sensors mounted on unmanned vehicles designed to detect pollutants, toxins or explosives, officials said.

“Research like Dr. Lovley’s could lead to the development of new electronic materials to meet the increasing demand for smaller, more powerful computing devices,” Dr. Linda Chrisey, a program officer in ONR’s Warfighter Performance Department, said in a statement. “Being able to produce extremely thin wires with sustainable materials has enormous potential application as components of electronic devices such as sensors, transistors and capacitors.”

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Hope Hodge Seck
Hope Hodge Seck is a reporter at Military.com. She can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.