Today, more than 80% of all world energy supply comes from burning fossil fuels. The need for renewable alternatives is critical and Ireland is fast approaching the 2020 deadline set by the European Union to increase the percentage of renewable energy consumption to 16%. In 2015 renewable energy contributed 9.1% of the total energy consumption in the EU that year. New renewable energy production technologies are needed. The research teams of Professor Charles Spillane and Professor Dónal Leech in the Ryan Institute at NUI Galway are exploring approaches using microorganisms and 3D bio-printing techniques to develop a new type of sustainable carbon-neutral biological battery.
Batteries and the ability to generate electricity from chemical reactions is nothing new. Back in the 1800s Italian physicist Alessandro Volta described one of the first batteries called a voltaic pile. The basic principles of a battery have not changed much since then. There are still just three main components; a positive terminal where electrochemical reduction occurs, a negative terminal where electrochemical oxidation occurs and the solution between them for balancing charge flow which is called an electrolyte. Advances made in the battery performance have mainly consisted of changing the chemicals at the two terminals or the composition of the electrolyte. Ultimately the same problem exists, once the chemical reaction between the terminals finishes the batteries go flat and need to be recharged, if possible, or additional chemicals added (a so-called fuel cell). Research team member Dr. Galina Brychkova highlights that 3D bioprinting offers new possibilities for developing designer biological systems using cellular biomaterials for production of novel biological batteries and fuel cells.
Biological batteries (or biobatteries) which use electricity generating microorganisms and renewable carbon sources, for example generated from sunlight and CO2, could pave the way for novel energy production devices. Using their combined expertise, the SFI-funded research teams aim to 3D bioprint the required microorganisms into a workable battery format that would continuously produce energy using renewable carbon sources.