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December 2010 Issue

Daniel Hassett, PhD
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Bacterium May Provide Alternative Power Source in Microbial Fuel Cells

Published December 2010

Daniel Hassett, PhD, has devoted much of his career to investigating pulmonary disease through his research as a professor in UC’s department of molecular genetics, biochemistry and microbiology. So how did he find himself at the forefront of efforts to develop alternative fuel sources?

Blame it on a bacterium called Pseudomonas aeruginosa.

"This is an organism that I routinely use in my lab, and it’s a pathogen (disease-causing organism),” he says. "But it’s an opportunistic pathogen, and we can genetically engineer it to make it a non-pathogen—basically, a pussycat.”

This pussycat’s meow has the ability to roar in the field of alternative energy. As Hassett puts it, "This is a proprietary organism generated here in my lab at UC to the point that it’s no longer infectious to humans, animals or plants. But it can metabolize waste much better than just about any organism out there.”

Hassett uses Pseudomonas aeruginosa in microbial fuel cells, which convert chemical energy to electrical energy. The microorganisms essentially "eat” waste products and convert them to electricity, water and/or hydrogen gas that could potentially be processed and returned to the energy grid for carbon credits.

"Everybody else is designing a fuel cell chassis that they can use,” says Hassett. "We’re making the engine—the bacteria that power the cell.”

Hassett is also co-founder and chief science officer of Cincinnati-based Pilus Energy, LLC. Working with companies that deal in large amounts of waste, such as Anheuser-Busch, JTM Food Group and Griffin Industries, Pilus developed a reactor that will likely be used in pilot programs by Pacific Gas & Electric in northern California.

Griffin Industries, based in Cold Spring, Ky., is one of the largest animal byproduct rendering and recycling firms in North America.

"They can produce up to 150,000 gallons of waste a day,” says Hassett, "and our bacteria love that.”

Large-scale energy production may be a long way off, but Hassett is excited by the possibilities at UC and other universities working on microbial fuel cells.

"We have collaborators at Ohio State University and Ohio University, and might also work with a group at Case Western Reserve University” he says. "I’m planning to write a grant proposal for an Ohio-based academic consortium of UC and those schools that would be based in my lab at the CARE/Crawley Building.”

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