U.K. researchers make a breakthrough in the quest to generate clean electricity from bacteria, finding that proteins on the surface of bacteria can produce an electric current simply by touching a mineral surface.

The study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows it is possible for bacteria to lie directly on the surface of a metal or mineral and transfer electrical charge through their cell membranes.

Lead researcher Tom Clarke from the University of East Anglia’s School of Biological Sciences says this means it is possible to “tether” bacteria directly to electrodes, a step closer to creating efficient microbial fuel cells or bio-batteries.

Clarke says in an email to WardsAuto that while the current from bacteria is unlikely to reach the density required to power a car, there are possible applications in the generation of biofuel.

“Microbes such as yeast are already used to convert sugars into bio-ethanol in fuel, and these electricity-generating bacteria could also be modified so that instead of producing electricity, they use electricity to generate biofuel,” he says.

“We are about to start a project that will use these bacteria to generate formic acid from carbon dioxide using a cathode. Should this prove successful, we can then try to convert the formic acid into another carbon intermediate that could either be used as fuel or as a chemical base for something else.”

Clarke’s team collaborated with researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington on the project, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the U.S. Department of Energy.

The research team created a synthetic version of the marine bacteria Shewanella oneidensis.

“These bacteria show great potential as microbial fuel cells, where electricity can be generated from the breakdown of domestic or agricultural waste products,” Clarke says in a statement.

“Another possibility is to use these bacteria as miniature factories on the surface of an electrode, where chemical reactions take place inside the cell using electrical power supplied by the electrode through these proteins.”