Magazine article Science News

Electrifying Toxic Cleanup: Electrodes Could Stimulate Removal of Radioactive Waste

Magazine article Science News

Electrifying Toxic Cleanup: Electrodes Could Stimulate Removal of Radioactive Waste

Article excerpt

Inspired by recent successes at using microbes in fuel cells to produce energy, researchers have devised a bioremediation system that electrically stimulates bacteria to break down toxic chemicals in the environment.

In a microbial fuel cell, bacteria stick to the surface of an electrode. As the bacteria metabolize organic matter in either sediment (SN: 7/13/02, p. 21) or wastewater (SN: 2/13/04, p. 165), the microorganisms transfer electrons to the electrode, producing a current.

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, led by Derek Lovley, wondered whether reversing this process could work for cleaning up nuclear waste sites and other polluted venues that lack the organic matter that bacteria need for bioremediation jobs. The researchers proposed a system in which an electrode, instead of receiving electrons, would donate them to the microbes.

"The idea of trying to drive electrons into bacteria and use [them] for remediation is a very interesting one," says environmental engineer Bruce Logan of Pennsylvania State University in State College.

The Massachusetts group tested its idea in the lab using sediments from a uranium-contaminated aquifer in Rifle, Colo., a sandy environment with little or no organic material. The researchers inserted a graphite electrode into the sample, charged it up, and observed the responses of the sediment's naturally occurring bacteria. The microbes quickly began to add electrons to the uranium, converting it into a less mobile and therefore less troublesome form. …

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