Energy efficiency is the hottest trend these days.
Everyone wants to talk about it. Do stuff about it. Make changes to it. Come up with alternatives to the sources we have. Panic over the possibility that we might run out of it or not have enough of it. Simply put, energy and the things we use to get it are loud, screaming issues for our society.
So it goes without saying (not really) that an alternative energy source of any sort might be of use to humanity. Especially one that uses something we have a lot of, like say waste water or carbon dioxide. Wouldn’t it be cool if we had a device that could take the muck we don’t want and convert it into energy that we need? And wouldn’t it also be awesome if that device could potentially work forever without needing to be recharged?
I know you might be thinking, “But Jessica, you sly fox you, that’s just crazy science fiction talk that is”. And while yes, I am a sly fox, this particular type of science is in no way fiction. Not anymore.
Dr. Lenny Tender at the LASR facility, located at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Ian Graham)
Meet Dr. Lenny Tender.
Dr. Tender is a research chemist – and the branch head – at the center for bimolecular science and engineering at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington D.C. where he has spent over a decade perfecting a science that uses benthic microbial fuel cells. That’s a device that uses a method of extracting energy from the biological elements of sediment under water.
A device that uses the squishy sand at the beach to power stuff? How does THAT work?
“Benthic microbial fuel cell is a device that extracts electricity from the sea floor,” Dr. Tender explains. “That’s what benthic means; it’s the interface between the sediment on the bottom of a marine environment and the overlying water. This technology being developed to persistently operate oceanographic sensors. It’s able to generate electricity just like a windmill.”
Which means that the benthic microbial fuel cell is just that; an energy harvester. Whoa.
But wait, this doesn’t mean we ought to take all of our alkaline batteries and just toss ‘em out. Obviously there’s a process.
“At that at the bottom of the marine environment we have a sediment,” explains Dr. Tender, “and in the mud at the bottom of a harbor, river, lake or the ocean. This sediment actually has quite a bit of fuel in it.”
Think of anything that has ever lived in the marine environment; phytoplankton, sea creatures, etc. When they die they wind up settling down on the sea floor, just like leaves on the lawn. So those creatures, as they start decomposing, represent a pretty potent fuel source. Glucose for example. That is the geological precursor for petroleum.
It’s also the sort of stuff that’s sitting there mixed into the sediment on the sea floor.