Checking on the bacteria-powered battery which harvests energy from microorganisms in the soil.
Photo: © Courtesy of Bactery, from the pilot project in Brazil

Soil power – bacterial batteries to harvest energy from soil

A new startup company, based at the UK’s University of Bath, is leading the charge to a new form of sustainable power, by creating a battery that recharges itself when placed in soil.

Bactery, a University of Bath spinout company, has developed bacteria-powered batteries – or “Bacteries” – which harvest green energy from soil by taking advantage of natural processes that occur in microorganisms within it.

The company’s CEO, Dr Jakub Dziegielowski, who undertook a PhD in Chemical Engineering at the University of Bath before setting up the company, says: “Our initial goal is to leverage the unique Bactery technology to accelerate the shift toward digitalisation within the agriculture sector."

As precision agriculture continues to demonstrate its effectiveness in boosting yields and conserving resources, the demand for sensors and Internet of Things (IoT) devices continues to rise. These electronics collect and relay data on the state of the fields, empowering farmers to make well-informed decisions.

However, current “on-farm” power delivery methods, such as obstructive cabling, single-use chemical batteries and weather-dependent solar panels, largely restrict deployment of Agri-data solutions. Recognising this, Bactery will offer a more practical, affordable and reliable means of powering these electronics – through soil itself.

The technology has a useable lifespan of over 25 years, and an anticipated cost of around £ 25 per unit with no maintenance expenses, with the company promising “install and forget” functionality.

How Bactery technology works

Bactery’s technology builds on Soil Microbial Fuel Cells (SMFCs), which harness energy from the metabolic activity of specific microorganisms known as electrigens, naturally present in soil. Electrigens have the unique ability to generate electrons during the consumption of organic compounds. These electrons are “grabbed” by the SMFCs and are forced to travel through an external circuit, producing electricity.

The team proved the concept in 2019, by building a soil-powered water disinfection system for decentralised communities. The prototype was tested in Icapuí, a fishing village in a remote semi-arid part of North-East Brazil, where the main source of drinking water is rainwater and access to a reliable power network is scarce.

Since then, the company has developed a way to effectively scale and sustain electricity generation. They achieved this using innovative designs and custom energy harvesting strategies, tailored to the biological processes in the ground. The firm will spend the upcoming twelve months refining their prototypes before advancing towards small-scale production. Ahead of the 2026 product launch, the team is inviting potential collaborators and investors in relevant fields to get in touch.

Chemical and electronic engineering expertise

Bactery’s directors also include Chemical Engineer Professor Mirella Di Lorenzo, and Electronics Engineer Dr Ben Metcalfe. Both are based in the Bath University’s Faculty of Engineering & Design and are Deputy Directors of CBio, the Centre for Bioengineering & Biomedical Technologies.

Di Lorenzo says: “Farmers are increasingly valuing the importance of data to make informed decisions towards resource-efficient agricultural practices. We are removing the barrier to generating that data by creating a sustainable way to power sensors, and making them always-on, cheap, low-maintenance and low-impact.”

Metcalfe adds: “This is a powerful illustration of how our Bactery technology could be used, but this is just the first application of what we believe is a great method of generating clean energy in an innovative, sustainable way.”

Dziegielowski concludes: “Bringing our product to this stage and putting theory into practice through several years of research has been a challenging, yet incredibly rewarding experience.”

(University of Bath/SciDev.Net/wi)

More information:

Bactery website

Parties interested in using Bactery’s technology can contact or visit Bactery on Linkedin.

Download edition 2023/01 Focus: "Energy – time for change"

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