Time recognizes UM professor’s invention as one of the year’s best
University of Massachusetts professor of microbiology Derek Lovley was featured in a Time Magazine article published on Nov. 12 for creating one of the top 50 inventions of 2009 – A more effective way to get electricity out of microorganisms.
Lovley, a Ph.D. graduate from Michigan State University who came to UMass in 1995, said it was “not [his] first time with Time.” Previously, Lovley said he had been featured in the magazine back in 2004 as an environmentalist and has been covered by the press for over 20 years.
The potential for this electricity producing organism is enormous, according to Lovley.
The invention that won acclaim this year began with a discover Lovley made in 1987 when he found a new class of bacteria called Geobacter. The anaerobic bacteria can create electricity by using small hair-like filaments called microbial nanowires to extract energy from surrounding mud and water.
Lovley explained that the bacteria uses electrodes like we use oxygen, as a way to get electrons out of the cell.
Lovley added that his team’s explorations into the use of the microbe for power generation started in 2002 with underwater sea experiments funded by the U.S. Navy trying to extract power from the mud.
“Now kids can do it for science fair projects,” Lovley said. “If you connect graphite in the mud to outside graphite you get a [power] flow.”
Lovley said this year he and his team came up with a strategy for increasing power output and manipulated the Geobacter to make it eight times more effective.
“[The improvement] greatly expands practical applications,” he added.
According to Lovley, a key proponent of his research team is UMass graduate and research assistant professor Dr. Kelly Nevin, who grew the stronger electrode that allowed for the invention.
Lovley added that his lab focuses on more than just the Geobacter. The lab, which has 50 to 60 researchers and staff, is environmentally focused with working heavily on groundwater purification and, as Lovley put it, “things one would normally think of as fuel, such as trash.”
According to Lovley, he has had some research funded by Toyota for a long-term fuel source, though he added that is quite a few years away. Other potential future applications include small electronics batteries and wastewater treatment.
For now, Lovley and his team have a paper ready to be published on the effectiveness of Geobacter in the Boston Harbor. The research, according to Lovley, has expedited the clean-up process and can possibly be applied to other polluted waterways.
Sam Hayes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.