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Bacteria could lead to cleaner methane power

Organic fuel cells turn methane into electricity without harmful leaks.
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Andrew Penner

Methane as a greenhouse gas isn't all that eco-friendly when used for power, but scientists might have a way to keep the damage to a minimum. Penn State researchers have crafted microbial fuel cells that can convert methane into electricity right at the well, without leaking loads of gas into the atmosphere by sending it through pipes. The team created a cocktail of bacteria (including a synthetic microbe you can't normally grow) that produces the necessary materials to grab and transport electrons from the methane. Not only is this a relatively clean process, the bacteria can run on waste products -- it might clean up the site as it generates power.

This definitely isn't ready for prime time. The current project only produces a thousandth of the electricity that you'd get from a methanol fuel cell. And of course, cleaning up methane power is really a stopgap solution on the way to wider use of renewable energy. But it's a start -- until it's realistic to ditch methane, anything that curbs its harmful emissions should be helpful.

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