In the popular movie, Forrest Gump, the title character tells everyone he meets, “Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get.”
What researchers got when they tried an experiment with chocolate and bacteria was a sweet new source of clean, renewable energy, according to a report in the journal Biochemical Society Transactions.
Bacteria Produce Hydrogen from Chocolate Waste
Microbiologist Lynne Mackaskie and her team of researchers at the University of Birmingham in the UK found a way to produce hydrogen by feeding waste products from a chocolate factory to Escherichia coli bacteria.
The researchers fed the bacteria (better known as E. coli bacteria) diluted caramel and nougat waste left over from the chocolate-making process. The experiment created conditions that caused the bacteria to ferment the sugars in the chocolate waste, which generated organic acids so toxic to the bacteria that they began converting formic acid to hydrogen like mad.
The researchers used the hydrogen to power a fuel cell, which generated enough electricity to run a small fan. Hydrogen is one of the cleanest renewable fuels around. When it is used to power fuel cells, for example, the only byproduct is water.
A Breakthrough for Renewable Energy
The discovery of a way to extract hydrogen from food waste could be a real breakthrough for both industry and the environment, because the process isn’t restricted to chocolate waste. It works equally well on many other types of waste.
The ability to convert food waste into clean renewable energy instead of garbage has the potential to transform the food industry. Using this process, food factories could conceivably use their own waste products to power their manufacturing operations, or to fuel a fleet of hydrogen-powered vehicles.
“Hydrogen offers huge potential as a carbon-free energy carrier,” Mackaskie said in a university press release. “Although only at its initial stages, we’ve demonstrated a hydrogen-producing, waste-reducing technology that, for example, might be scaled-up in 5-10 years’ time for industrial electricity generation and waste treatment processes.”
Value of New Renewable Energy Source Widespread
Mackaskie and her researchers found that E. coli bacteria also have other industrial uses. For example, when bacteria were added to a production line that recovers the precious metal palladium from the catalytic converters of old cars, the results were remarkable.
Bacteria were added to a vat filled with hydrogen and liquid waste from old converters. Essentially, the bacteria produced hydrogenase, which split the hydrogen into electrons that bonded with palladium trapped in the converter waste, and then stuck to the bacteria. Once the bacteria were coated with palladium, they could be recycled as catalysts for other industrial processes.
So the next time you decide to sneak a candy bar or indulge in a rich chocolate dessert, forgive yourself the extra calories. With every bite, you may be helping to save the planet.