Meet the Scientists: Dr. Y. Meriah Arias-Thode

Meet the Scientists is an Armed with Science segment highlighting the men and women working in the government realms of science, technology, research and development.  The greatest minds working on the greatest developments of our time.  If you have someone you’d like AWS to highlight for this segment, email Jessica L. Tozer at science@dma.mil.

Meriah Arias-Thode, scientist, and Renae Cruz, intern, examine the iron oxide zone (orange color) in the KeegoTech MuddWatt  (TM) Microbial Fuel Cell system at Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific (photo by Alan Antczak/released)

Meriah Arias-Thode, scientist, and Renae Cruz, intern, examine the iron oxide zone (orange color) in the KeegoTech MuddWatt (TM) Microbial Fuel Cell system at Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific (photo by Alan Antczak/released)

WHO: Dr. Y. Meriah Arias-Thode.  Originally from South Texas.  Went to the university of Texas in San Antonio for her bachelors in science, then went to San Diego UCSD (University of California San Diego), and finally did her PhD work at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

TITLE: Meriah is currently a senior environmental microbiologist and scientist at SSC Pacific.  She studies marine biology.  Well, actually it’s marine microbiology, therefore she’s an environmental microbiologist.

MISSION: At SSC Pacific, Meriah gets to do applied research in her chosen field.  She started with contaminated sediments –  looking at bacterial remediation of sediments that are contaminated with metals – but now she’s sort of moved on to microbial fuel cell research.

Let’s talk about your role in this microbial fuel cell development.  Can you explain?

“The way a benthic microbial fuel cell works is that it is a bio-battery. The batteries have a positive and a negative terminal. A benthic microbial fuel cell is essentially where you bury the negative anode in the mud in sediments.  Then you electrically connect it to a cathode, the positive terminal,, which is in the over lying water column, and then you actually get electricity formed.  I am trying to help to do what we can to obtain more power. Right now we are not getting that much power.  We are obtaining about 0.2 watts.  However, if you consider, for example, they are already selling 4 watt light bulbs at IKEA, and that’s commercial.”

“In the research realm we are working with sensors that use only 1 watt or less. So you can see, with just a little bit more, we are trying to increase that power right now to 0 .5W within the next three years.  On the other side of the spectrum, the research is trying to come  develop sensors that require less power,  that way we can meet in the middle. My part in the fuel cell development is to obtain more energy via more efficient microbial processes as well as looking at materials that would be more effective at increasing the positive/negative  potential.”

What would you say is the goal of this scientific process?

“The scientific reason for this is to actually be able to power – or trickle charge – batteries of underwater sensors.  For example, most of the time the Navy has  underwater sensors which function for 3-6 months. They cannot count on them for longer than 6 months.  If they need that sensor or item they will actually go out in boats with divers or heavy equipment to bring up the sensors and change the batteries. You can imagine the cost of all that, plus the risk involved as well.  Right now,  by trickle charging batteries and perhaps directly providing power, we can extend the life of the sensor by one year or longer. This, in turn, will decreases cost significantly of things like boats or the divers’ equipment.”

In your own words, what is it about your process that makes it so significant?

“Honestly, it is simple and elegant. You are using bacteria that are already there, and you are able to capture electricity.”

“So something else, they are also using the microbial fuel cells because it is bio battery, and generally, relatively inexpensive. You can use it in a variety of instances and circumstances. The one I am talking about specifically is what we term a ‘benthic microbial fuel cell’. Benthic means buried in the ocean (sediment could be a lake or freshwater system).”

Can you talk about some of the technological uses for this technology being applied today?

Dr. Orianna Bretschger is an Assistant Professor in the Electromicrobiology group within the Microbial and Environmental Genomics department at the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI), San Diego.  She has a microbial fuel cell system which uses human waste [to generate power].  She is able to treat that human waste with a method that’s three times more efficient than the current method used to clean waste water, (black water).  She can even generate enough power to charge cellphones!  Dr. Bretschger has been funded by the EPA to do these modular waste treatment systems in places like Africa.”

So it doesn’t stink as much and it’s THREE TIMES more efficient.

“Right.  You’re done within nine days versus thirty. I mean that’s just fantastic! It’s also cleaner, although it is not clean enough to drink.”

Are there any other applications that you’d like to see this process applied to?

“So something that is still research based is an idea I have to use this process for grey water treatment. Grey water is all other used water minus the poop. In places like Iraq and Afghanistan, 85% of the water [at some areas] is used is to wash trucks.  The reason is because of the sand. The sand is really bad for the sensors on the truck.  My goal would be to treat that water with a microbial fuel cell and then reuse it again.”

What got you interested in this field of study?

“I was in high school biology.  We saw a drop of water from a lake under a microscope.  To me it was the coolest thing to see because you get to see they algae and bacteria and they were beautiful. It was just so fantastic to me to see so much life in this one milliliter of water. At 17, I worked in a medical lab as a lab tech for the Army and I just loved the microbiology part. It was because of this that I went into environmental microbiology.  Not much is known about environmental microbes, whereas with human pathogens we know quite a lot. Not that there isn’t a need to study more; there is!  But I just felt like I would have more of a chance to do my own thing; create my own niche.”

Are you working on any other projects right now?

“Most of the income is on the microbial fuel cells to power underwater sensors.  We have different teams: engineers, ocean engineers, environmental engineers, chemical engineers, and we all work together towards the end goal of producing more power, and useable power, and how to use this power in different configurations.  The other project that I just started is the waste water project, where we’re testing and evaluating the modular  waste water treatment by usage of microbial fuel cells. Weare just starting that.”

Really? That’s going to be huge.  The water recycling and processing they do on the space station is a pretty big deal.  Imagine what we could do with that on Earth.

“Right.  Absolutely. Especially in a place like California, where drought is the norm.  I also work with a team, so it’s not just me.”

If you could go anywhere in time and space, where would you go and why?

“I like this question a lot.  It made me think!  I came up with two answers.  So my first answer would be that I would like to go fifty years into the future. I really want to see the microbial fuel cell for gray water being used all over the place.  I think that would be fantastic.  My goal is to do no harm.  I can’t imagine any negative consequence of this technology, but I would like to know that that’s true.”

“Water is so important.  It’s such a big thing.  Water could be our next war.  So, if we could prevent that by using a microbial fuel cell to clean up your gray water and decrease water consumption, that would be fantastic for me.”

So what’s your second answer?

“Okay, so you know I love bacteria.”

*laughs* Okay, that…is true for you.

“I do, I love bacteria!  Anyway, Antonie  van Leeuwenhoek, who lived in the late 17th century in the 1600s, discovered bacteria.  He was a navigation person; he worked with lenses and he found and discovered and presented what he called animalcules to the British Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge.  They laughed at him. They said, ‘What do you mean there are these animals that we can’t see?’ and I just think it would have been fantastic to have been there, and seen that, and been amazed by it.  I just think that would have been fantastic.  Unfortunately, I likely would not have been allowed to see, since I am female.  Now had I been serving the tea…I might have snuck a peak.”

Thanks to Dr. Y. Meriah Arias-Thode for contributing to this article, and for her contributions to the science and technological communities.

Publications:
Pollutant Source Tracking (PST) Technical Guidance
Bacterial and Benthic Community Response to Inorganic and Organic Sediment Amendments
A Comprehensive Copper Compliance Strategy: Implementing Regulatory Guidance at Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard & Intermediate Maintenance Facility

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Jessica L. Tozer
 is the editor and blogger for Armed with Science.  She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for science and technology in the military.

Follow Armed with Science on Facebook and Twitter!

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