For students in the fields of biotechnology and engineering, iGEM represents an important measure of interdisciplinary innovation. Sponsored by MIT, the international Genetically Engineered Machine competition attracts talented teams from around the globe to develop new bioengineered technologies to solve significant problems.

One contender in this year's competition is a group from Germany's Bielefeld University, which has come up with a bacteria-powered battery. Seeking to address the problems of increasing energy demand and poor environmental performance of existing batteries—which include heavy metals and other toxins—the Bielefeld team developed a microbial fuel cell that converts bacteria directly into energy. The MFC, or bio-battery, uses microorganisms rather than conventional electrolytes in its anode. The bacteria's natural metabolism converts glucose into electrons, which then travel via an external circuit to the cathode—powering small lights or motors.

Although current prototypes generate low amounts of energy, the students anticipate the technology being attractive for portable, personal use in regions that lack reliable energy supplies. Unlike renewable technologies such as wind or solar power, the bio-battery will enable constant energy production as long as there are sufficient supplies of Escherichia coli or other microorganisms. Notably, these bacteria must be bioengineered to produce energy efficiently—a fact that suggests a potentially important future role for synthetic biologists in the energy industry.

Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.