Most people associate bacteria with disease and contamination, leaving the microorganisms with few saving graces. Yet their reputation could be about to change over the next few years: researchers are engineering bacteria to provide alternative energy sources to replace fossil fuels. And if they succeed, it will be thanks to projects like MicroGen, a European Union (EU) research project looking at new ways to generate renewable fuels from microorganisms.
© Fotolia, 2013
The four-year MicroGen project, which began in December 2006, was one of the EU's Marie Curie Actions (MCAs), a programme supporting the mobility of European researchers. The aim was to build research capacity around the National University of Ireland (NUI) in Galway to explore the potential for microorganisms to generate energy from organic sources like wastewater. "We felt that novel microbiological approaches could be combined to create energy efficient and sustainable wastewater treatment and bioenergy systems," says MicroGen's project coordinator Vincent O'Flaherty, Head of Microbiology at NUI Galway.
Backed by a €1 million EU grant, NUI Galway worked with the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology in Germany, the University of Minho in Portugal and Wageningen University in the Netherlands to provide advanced training to seven PhD-level researchers while investigating the fuel-making abilities of bacteria.
Engineered bacteria offer the prospect of alternative energy sources to replace fossil fuels and clean up pollution and toxic chemicals. This is a research area that has generated keen interest from the European food and water sectors, looking at ways to both cut their carbon emissions and meet environmental standards. "Anaerobic digestion systems could greatly reduce the costs of wastewater treatment," says O'Flaherty. "It could also benefit Europeans more generally by providing more secure and sustainable energy sources and by improving water quality."
MicroGen achieved some key breakthroughs, including the development of novel low-temperature anaerobic digestion technology from wastewater.
The researchers also showed that both biogas and electricity could be produced from biomass sources like ryegrass by combining anaerobic digestion and microbial fuel cells. This has opened up new potential routes for sustainable bioenergy production.
The research has already attracted the attention of the European Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency in Ireland, given its potential to support environmental and industrial development policy goals. "Arising from the project, we are now very interested in looking at different feedstocks and also the potential to produce valuable products, in addition to energy, from wastes and other organic residues, using mixed culture microbial biotechnology in a biorefinery setting," says O'Flaherty.
But the most important outcome of the project, O'Flaherty says, was that it contributed to the training of excellent researchers and laid the foundations for continued success.
"The project generated new links and collaborations," he says. That included work the researchers went on to, with two securing prestigious faculty positions where they set up their own independent research groups: Changsoo Lee at the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST) in South Korea, and Krishna Katuri at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia. Another, Denise Cysneiros, is now a senior research in Ireland's Technology Centre for Biorefining and Bioenergy (TCBB), an important industry-led initiative aimed at developing the indigenous bioenergy sector.
"MicroGen enabled us to create a strong and experienced team," O'Flaherty says. "We were able to build momentum and to make progress much more quickly that would otherwise have been possible. In turn, the researchers who came to Ireland brought skills and knowledge that NUI Galway lacked."