Researchers at the Arizona State University's Biodesign Institute believe that the ability of microorganisms to grow from an almost infinite variety of food sources may play a significant role in bailing out society from its current energy crisis. In the August 6 issue of Nature Reviews Microbiology, the ASU scientists outline paths where bacteria might provide the best hope in producing renewable energy in large quantities without damaging the environment or competing with our food supply.
During this week's GEN podcast, Dr. Bruce Rittman discusses two distinct but complementary avenues to using microbes as energy sources and talks about a number of specific energy applications. In addition, he describes the key steps for achieving large scale success in microbial bioenergy production. While acknowledging that the millions of bacterial species on the earth present engineers with a plethora of opportunities for energy applications, Dr. Rittmann also explores the significant challenges posed by working with this broad microbial biodiversity. He goes on to address the importance of the genomic technologies and other molecular biology techniques as they relate to the choice and use of bacteria for energy applications. He also points out the specific technologies that appear to be the most promising and looks closely at the roles these methodologies can play in microbial energy production.
Bruce Rittmann, PhD, pursues research that is aimed at developing microbiological systems that capture renewable resources and also minimize environmental pollution. His work, which combines engineering with microbiology and chemistry, can be used to reclaim polluted water and generate energy from waste substances.
Dr. Rittmann was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2004, cited for pioneering the development of biofilm fundamentals and contributing to their widespread use in the cleanup of contaminated waters, soils and ecosystems.His research combines engineering with microbiology, biochemistry, geochemistry and microbial ecology to address fundamental and applied issues in the biological treatment of waters and wastewater, the bioremediation of contaminated aquifers and soils, and the recovery of energy from waste materials.Rittmann, formerly with Northwestern University, is also a recognized leader in the development of the Membrane Biofilm Reactor, an approach that uses bacteria to destroy pollutants in water. The Membrane Biofilm Reactor is especially effective for removing perchlorate from drinking water, and it is being launched commercially. The Colorado River, which provides much of Arizona's water supply, has a high level of perchlorate contamination, and perchlorate has also been found in groundwater in the Phoenix area. Perchlorate at very low concentrations affects the function of the thyroid gland, which disrupts the body's hormone levels.Rittmann also explores microbial fuel cells, which utilize organic materials in water to generate electricity directly. Traditional fuel cells use hydrogen gas as their fuel. While hydrogen has a clean byproduct (water), it is derived from petroleum fuels and is therefore not renewable. Using microorganisms as the catalyzing agents and organic matter in food and human wastes as the fuel would create a renewable energy source. The microbial fuel cell captures the energy resource in organic wastes while eliminating them as water pollutants.
In addition to being a member of the National Academy of Engineering, Dr. Rittmann has been a member of the E.P.A. Science Advisory Board, president of the Association of Environmental Engineering and Science Professors, and vice-chair of the Water Science and Technology Board of the National Research Council. He is the author of more than 300 books and articles, serves as editor-in-chief of the international journal Biodegradation, and serves on the Editorial Advisory Board of Environmental Science & Technology. Dr. Rittmann's textbook - Environmental Biotechnology": Principles and Applications - is used by universities around the world to educate students about the ways in which microorganisms can be used to improve environmental quality.