"We were studying making hydrogen in microbial electrolysis cells and we kept getting all this methane," said Bruce E. Logan, Kappe Professor of Environmental Engineering, Penn State. "We may now understand why."
Methanogenic microorganisms do produce methane in marshes and dumps, but scientists thought that the organisms turned hydrogen or organic materials, such as acetate, into methane. However, the researchers found, while trying to produce hydrogen in microbial electrolysis cells, that their cells produced much more methane than expected.
"All the methane generation going on in nature that we have assumed is going through hydrogen may not be," said Logan. "We actually find very little hydrogen in the gas phase in nature. Perhaps where we assumed hydrogen is being made, it is not."
Microbial electrolysis cells do require an electrical voltage to be added to the voltage that is produced by bacteria using organic materials to produce current that evolves into hydrogen. The researchers found that the Archaea, using about the same electrical input, could use the current to convert carbon dioxide and water to methane without any organic material, bacteria or hydrogen usually found in microbial electrolysis cells. They report their findings in this week's issue of Environmental Science and Technology."We have a microbe that is self perpetuating that can accept electrons directly, and use them to create methane," said Logan.