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Power from the Ground? Soil Microbes Set to Spark Revolution in Limitless Dirt-Cheap Energy

Scientists Unearth Infinite Power Source from Soil Microbes
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Scientists unearth alternative energy source from soil microbes.

Feb. 1 2024, Published 1:01 p.m. ET

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Researchers have uncovered a nearly limitless and cost-effective energy source, deriving power from an unexpected place – the soil.

Recent findings reveal a groundbreaking discovery in energy harvesting technology that boasts a remarkable durability of at least 120% longer than comparable existing technologies.

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Bill Yen, the author of the experiment, emphasized the need for eco-friendly alternatives, stating, "If we imagine a future with trillions of these devices, we cannot build every one of them out of lithium, heavy metals and toxins that are dangerous to the environment."

The focus shifted towards soil microbial fuel cells, utilizing specialized microbes to break down soil and convert the resulting minimal energy into a power source for sensors.

Yen, speaking via Northwestern Now, explained, "As long as there is organic carbon in the soil for the microbes to break down, the fuel cell can potentially last forever."

This breakthrough is particularly beneficial in agricultural settings where constant exposure to dust and moisture poses a threat.

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Yen highlighted the limitations of conventional energy sources like solar panels and batteries in such environments. Unlike solar panels, which struggle in dirty surroundings and are ineffective without sunlight, the soil microbial fuel cells offer a more practical solution.

Yen pointed out, "Farmers are not going to go around a 100-acre farm to regularly swap out batteries or dust off solar panels."

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The study underscored the relevance of this technology in agriculture, where sensors are essential for monitoring nutrients, moisture, toxins and acidity levels. The potential applications extend to tracking animal movements, adding another layer of usefulness.

Co-author George Wells explained the simplicity of the technology, stating, "Harvested microbes already live in soil everywhere. We can use very simple engineered systems to capture their electricity."

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While acknowledging that this energy source won't power entire cities, Wells emphasized its capability to fuel practical, low-power applications.

The microbe-harvesting prototype, roughly the size of a paperback novel, features a cathode attached to a circular anode buried under sand, with a small waterproofed portion protruding for airflow.

Over the two years of development, the researchers observed that the current version produced 68 times more energy than required, showcasing the potential for this innovative energy solution.


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