Back to RET Home Page

SD-RET Project Example 2:

The “City of Microbes” (Biofilm) to Upcycle Greenhouse Gases into Biological Batteries

Research mentor:Venkataramana Gadhamshetty, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

Lab Overview: 7.8 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases, primarily methane is emitted worldwide as a part of our efforts to meet the energy demand (16 TeraWatts) through the combustion of fossil fuels.  The increasing rate of methane emissions and increasing concerns of global warming presents a compelling need to recycle, and if possible upcycle methane into valuable products. Oxidizing methane is not a trivial task. Methane has high C−H bond strength with the first bond dissociation energy of 439.3 kJ mol−1, implying that methane is the least reactive alkane. This likely explains the need for expensive catalysts and harsh chemicals to convert methane into fuels and chemical products. Here, the NSF RET trainees will closely work with talented graduate students and scientists to explore an innovative use of biofilms for upcycling methane into direct current (DC) electricity. Imagine AA battery driven by bacteria and often discarded methane. A biofilm a.k.a biological film is a sticky layer of polymeric substance that embeds diverse microbial population by sticking them with each other and to the material surface. Biofilms are often viewed as a syntrophic consortium of microorganisms. As they support community lifestyle, the “city of microbes”, similar to human beings.   

Gadhamshetty’s lab focuses on the fundamental and applied aspects of bio-electrochemistry and   material chemistry to address emerging problems pertinent to field of environmental engineering. A relevant example is the use of bioelectrochemical module in conjunction with an ultrafiltration module for enable reuse of primary clarifier effluent as cooling water in power plants. Other ongoing projects include development of inert coatings based on 2D materials for microbial corrosion applications. 

 Representative videos of ongoing research projects:

SD-RET research project: The RET RA will learn to grow “city of microbes” (i.e., grow biofilm) on porous electrode materials. The biofilms will be trained to use methane as their major nutrient source. The RA will then build the laboratory model for a microbial fuel cell fed with gaseous methane.  The RA will combine knowledge from domains of microbiology, chemistry, fuel cell theory to build a working prototype of a gas phase bioreactor for extracting electric current from methane oxidation.  The overarching question is Can we develop next generation, sustainable technology to harness biofilms and upcycle greenhouse gases.  

The RET RA will:

  • learn principles of microbiology, chemical oxygen demand, wastewater treatment as per NPDES permit; microbial electrochemistry, fuel cells, and specifically microbial fuel cells
  • learn to assemble, operate, and maintain a working prototype of a  fuel cell,  generate performance curves (e.g.  polarization curves) temporal profiles for pH, chemical oxygen demand, and steady-state voltage
  • design and develop MFC curriculum to explain concepts of microbiology, electrochemistry, and wastewater engineering to  K-12 education

Examples of alignment to the Next Generation Science/Common Core State Standards 3, 22:

  • HS-LS1-7: Illustrate the principles of extracellular electron transfer respiratory processes that allow microbial cells to break bonds in typically found organic compounds in wastewater and use the liberated energy to sustain their metabolic needs 
  • A-CED: Create equations that describe relations between current and voltage produced by living microorganisms in a galvanic cell.

Application Process

Research Experience Teacher 

1. Submit:
CV, Vitae, Resume, Biography

2. Submit: 
1 page brief of how you will utilize this experience in your classrooms/teaching

3. Project preference:
list your top two choices

4. Submit:
Send All items to Robb Winter via email: