February 1964 Popular Electronics
Table of Contents
Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles
published October 1954 - April 1985. All copyrights are hereby acknowledged.
Contrary to the fantastic
claim made by the author of this article from a 1964 issue of Popular Electronics
magazine, the "bug battery," also known as a
biobattery, did not revolutionize
rechargeable battery technology. In the ensuing 55+ years we have seen nickel cadmium
(NiCad), nickel metal hydride (NiMH), and now lithium polymer (LiPo) batteries,
respectively, do the revolutionizing. It's not that bacteria-based energy production
was a bad or impractical endeavor; it's just that advances did not proceed quickly
enough to keep up wit the other technologies. Research and development efforts inevitably
moved away from bug and onto chemicals. D.S. Halacy, Jr., of course had no way of
knowing that at the time, so his enthusiasm might have been justified. I say might
have been because then, as now, every new idea and technology has its die-hard evangelists
who do their sincere best to convince others to join in on the effort. Often, through
perseverance, the true believers prove the Doubting Thomases wrong and succeed in
spite of being told their ideas will never work. A modern day example is someone
like Elon Musk and his Tesla electric car line.
As of this writing
market cap is $84B, while that of
is a mere $36B, and
General Motors' is a paltry $50B.
The Amazing "Bug" Battery - Cover Story
By D.S. Halacy, Jr.
Want to build a biological fuel cell? Fantastically economical, they're the power
source of the future.
Illustrated on this months' cover is a radically new kind of power converter
called a biocell. To drive the electric motors, it is changing a fuel directly to
electricity with no intermediate steps. As with any new system or device, there
are "bugs" in the biocell. But engineers are not trying to eliminate all the bugs,
or more accurately, the bacteria, because they are generating electricity. Far past
the gimmick stage, a number of more refined biochemical fuel cells, to use their
proper name, are demonstrating their potential as a new power source for the space
age. Investigations are under way with a view toward using biocells in the "closed-cycle"
of a spacecraft like Apollo to convert waste material into fresh water and food
and, at the same time, generate electricity to power radios, radar and telemetry
gear, and other on-board auxiliary equipment.
Land-based biocells have powered radio transmitters, driven model boats, and
lighted fluorescent tubes. A Navy-sponsored design floats in the sea and generates
a multi-watt output. Thus, although the biocell is not yet rolling off the production
line for general use, the promise of this newest and most exotic fuel cell seems
Build your own bug battery? It's perfectly feasible with the
Electron Molecule Research kit illustrated in these two photos. Distributed by Allied
Electronics (the industrial branch of Allied Radio Corp.), 100 N. Western Ave.,
Chicago 80, Ill., the kit sells for $16.95 under stock number 7E658, and includes
material for 12 cells-plastic containers, copper and aluminum electrodes, harmless
bacteria in a carrier, activator (powdered brown rice husks), hardware, wire.
The aluminum and copper electrodes are bolted in the plastic
containers (left), which are then filled with the carrier. The biocells begin producing
electricity when activator is added - 12 are enough to run a small electric motor,
power a transistor radio, or light a small pilot lamp.
Up to the present time, man has produced the electricity he uses by mechanical
or electrochemical means. Biochemistry now looms as a major producer of power for
us, and it is not the science-fiction or Sunday supplement writers but scientists
themselves who suggest such "way-out" possibilities as turning the Black Sea into
a gigantic "bug battery" to light parts of the country surrounding it. A more modest
idea is that of using sewage, garbage, or wastes like those from paper mills to
feed bacteria. This not only produces power heretofore untapped; it also gets rid
of the waste material much more efficiently than conventional means.
Whether or not the biocell will ever produce power for a mill per kilowatt-hour
remains to be seen. One of the pioneer developers has predicted such a bonanza,
and there is general agreement that bio-power will figure importantly in our future.
After all, biochemistry has fed and clothed us all this time. Why not let it furnish
the power too?
The Biocell's Past
Although even the ancient Romans were aware of electricity in living things and
actually used the torpedo ray fish in shock treatment of the mentally ill, the idea
of putting bacterial metabolism to work as an electrical power plant dates back
only about 50 years. In 1912 a British botanist, M. C. Potter, put together a half-dozen
"cells" using yeast around carbon electrodes. This primitive bacterial battery generated
a current Potter measured at 1.25 milliamps.
The feat caused no sudden selling of utilities stocks. Other researchers conducted
similar experiments at irregular intervals, however, and in 1931 B. Cohen at Johns
Hopkins Medical School here in the United States reported on a bacterial battery
that upped Potter's output to about 2 ma. It was not until about 1960 that biocell
research got into high gear, with several groups pushing the idea at the same time.
In his work for the Department of Interior's Geological Survey, biologist Dr.
Frederick Sisler became greatly interested in the fact that decomposition of organic
matter on the ocean bottom, plus the chemical and physical conditions in the ocean,
led to production of a weak electric current. He began to work toward developing
a biocell exploiting this phenomenon.
Dr. John Welsh and his associates at Joseph Kaye and Company, a Cambridge, Massachusetts,
research firm, noted that all fuel cells had certain common denominators - fuel,
plus a catalyst to accelerate the electrochemical reaction. And since enzymes from
living cells are the ultimate in catalysts, Welsh felt that biochemistry might speed
some re-actions a million-fold.
A third group, Magna Industries, Inc. of California, came onto the biocell idea
in a roundabout way. Investigating the corrosion of oil wells and pipe lines under
the sea, they found that bacteria were the culprits. They found too that these bacteria
were generating tiny amounts of electricity while doing the dirty work. So Magna
began to investigate the possibility of setting these tiny workers at a more useful
task: that of producing electric power for seagoing equipment.
So immediately successful was biocell work that predictions were made in 1961
that a 1-watt cell was feasible and that a radio might be powered with bacterial
electricity within a few years. These things materialized even sooner than hoped
for. In 1962, Sisler and his associates in a newly formed private firm demonstrated
a small transmitter with a range of 15 miles, and also a model boat operating on
biocells, tapping the water it floated in.
The first biocell conference was held in 1962 in Corvallis, Oregon. About a dozen
firms were active by then in the new field, both with company-funded studies and
work backed by the Army, Navy, Air Force, and NASA. In just a couple of years the
biocell had jumped from laboratory test tube to serious contender as a new power
How It Works
Another type of biocell kit is the one above made by Rowland
Labs, 345 E. Forsyth St., Jacksonville. Fla. ($14.95). Making use of anaerobic sulphate-reducing
bacteria (dark tubes) and artificial sea water (light tubes), the cells produce
1.5 volts at 100 microamperes.
Dr. Rohrback, originator of Magna Inc.'s bio-power concepts,
points to power-producing bacteria culture. The firm go into the "bug" battery business
while investigating underwater corrosion of metal.
Every living thing, man, mouse, or microbe, is a biochemical fuel cell. It takes
in food or "fuel" and breaks the material down to a lower form, extracting energy
in the process. Some of this energy appears in the form of electricity. Luigi Galvani
was intrigued by the animal electricity he found in frogs, but his countryman, Volta,
turned scholars of electricity in another direction with his Voltaic pile, a device
considered the original battery.
Make electrodes of two dissimilar materials, place an electrolyte between them,
and current flows. This is the same "oxidation-reduction" process that goes on in
living things that breaks down fuel into energy and waste. Oxidation, familiar as
burning, is made, in a battery, to push electrons around a circuit instead.
The battery is a handy device, but expensive. It would be better to be able to
"burn" cheaper fuel in it to produce electricity, and in 1839 an Englishman named
Grove did just that. His battery used hydrogen gas instead of zinc or other metal
as a fuel, and was the forerunner of today's "hydrox" fuel cells. Before the turn
of the century other workers had improved Grove's idea and coined the name "fuel
cell." But another means of generating electricity was making its debut. Called
the dynamo, it ushered in the age of the mechanical production of electric power.
Since even the most efficient turbine generators are doomed by the inexorable
laws of thermodynamics to waste more than half the fuel fed them, in the mid-1940's
we turned belatedly again to the century-old idea of the fuel cell. Progress has
been considerable, and today we have fuel cells powering everything from golf carts
to the Apollo space vehicle.
In a typical fuel cell, hydrogen is fed to one electrode and oxygen to the other.
Separated by an "ion exchange" membrane rather than the liquid or paste electrolyte
of the storage battery, the fuel cell produces electricity - and water. This by-product
is important on space missions, obviously. In theory, a fuel cell can be 100 per
cent efficient. However, some energy is required to excite the molecules to an energy
level necessary for the reaction producing current flow, and there is some resistance
in the cell. Practically, 75 per cent is a good figure of merit.
With this kind of performance it might be wondered who needs batteries made from
bugs. But the conventional fuel cell still has drawbacks. Hydrogen and oxygen. are
expensive, and power densities of fuel cells are rather low even though they are
more attractive than regular batteries. A fuel cell that operates on cheap fuel
oil is needed, and work is going on in this direction. Catalysts to speed up the
reaction and cut down the internal loss of power are important. Such things as platinum,
and more recently, nickel boride, are being used. Unfortunately, fuel cells using
inexpensive hydrocarbon fuels such as natural gas, octane, etc., seem to require
expensive catalytic electrodes such as spongy platinum.
The stage was now set for the entry of the bacteria battery, the biochemical
fuel cell. As Dr. Welsh and others had noted, bacteria and their derivatives provide
catalysts par excellence. And they are not nearly so fussy as more conventional
catalysts. Experiments suggest that bacteria may make hydrocarbon fuel cells practical.
More important, biocells have already shown they can turn even waste material into
The Electron Molecule Research bio-battery in action on the cover represents
the simplest type of bio-power. With its aluminum and copper electrodes it might
appear to be a galvanic battery, using the rice husk "carrier" as an electrolyte.
However, if a weak acid solution is added instead of the bacteria nutrient, current
flow lasts only a short time. Thus the bacteria seem able to prevent polarization,
or coating of the electrodes, that halts the reaction. EMR demonstration cells have
been operated for more than a year with no decrease in output.
In more sophisticated biocells the anode and cathode sections are separated by
an ion-exchange "bridge" through which ions diffuse to sustain current flow. Bacteria
are placed at one or both electrodes and promote the process of stripping electrons
from the "fuel" provided them.
In addition to more effective catalytic action and the use of cheaper fuels,
the biocell operates at room temperature rather than the high temperatures required
in some fuel cells. It is also characterized by the mild, "natural" conditions at
which life processes take place, with a pH factor in the neutral range and a dilute
water solution as an electrolyte.
Fuel for the biocell varies from sugar to organic sea material, yeast, mushrooms,
or urea. The U. S. Bureau of Mines has demonstrated a biocell operating on the inorganic
material, pyrite, or fool's gold. Suggested are such things as grass, dry leaves,
sewage, and other waste materials. One of the most interesting biocells was made
by Magna researchers, using bacteria at one electrode and algae at the other, with
sunshine as fuel! In effect this represented a biological solar battery and offers
the intriguing possibility of converting sunlight to electricity more efficiently
than the photovoltaic cell.
The biocell, like the conventional fuel cell, is not without its drawbacks, of
course. Compactness is not among its merits, as witness the bulk of the EMR do-it-yourself
battery. Densities of only several amperes per square foot of electrode surface
have been reported and this is not sufficient for many applications.
The potential difference exhibited by living materials leads to mild reactions,
and the voltage of typical cells is only about half a volt. Cell resistance is a
problem, as is the proper shape and size of the cell itself. And obviously the bacterial
"workers" must be fed and thus gobble up half the available energy!
Success already achieved with biocells, despite little real knowledge of the
phenomenon of bioelectrochemistry, seems to indicate that the biocell's problems
are not insurmountable. Compared with those of harnessing the power of nuclear fusion
they seem small by contrast, though, of course, nobody suggests that the payoff
will be as great. Right now researchers know that the biocell works; they want to
know how to make it work better and the chances are good that they will succeed.
Biocells - Today and Tomorrow
The elaborate apparatus at left is an experimental hydrocarbon
biocell being tested at Socony Mobil Oil Company Field Research Laboratory.
Space planning is helping to boom biocell development. When NASA asked for bids
on a project there were 33 responding firms. Contracts have gone to four of them,
and working systems may be part of manned space vehicles within several years. This
is the "Space Oasis" concept, referred to before, with biocells working in conjunction
with an algae solar converter in the spaceship's closed cycle. Magna Corporation,
Marquardt Inc., General Electric, and Ford's Aero-nutronic Division are doing such
research work for NASA.
In operation, such a closed-cycle plant will process waste material to provide
water, food, and electricity to operate radio and other auxiliary equipment. As
an example of the potential power supply, tentative specifications describe a 20-watt
urea-fueled battery with 100 ampere-hour daily output from the waste of one crew
Much farther along are: U. S. Navy projects. Magna has produced multi-watt units
of a marine bio-battery. These are presently being used only to power transmitters
in buoys, but there are heady suggestions of bio-powered boats for the future. General
Scientific Corporation has also produced prototype units for the Navy.
A submarine to be powered by conventional fuel cells is being studied, and there
is a possibility that the biocell may be advantageous in such applications. If the
model boat already demonstrated, and the hints of using the Black Sea as a power
source can be taken seriously, the term "ocean current" takes on an entirely new
In addition to these programs and other government-funded work, there are privately
sponsored projects in the bio-cell field, with some aimed at commercial use of the
new power source. On land the biocell may be put to work first in powering remote
electrical and electronic installations, aircraft landing lights, fence chargers
for ranches and farms, and similar tasks. Army portable radars have already operated
successfully on conventional fuel cells and such military gear using bio-power seems
Later on may come projects like harnessing the energy in sewage, paper mill effluent,
and so on. While conventional generating plants are obviously safe for many years
to come, developments in biochemistry may eventually lead to low-cost industrial
electricity competing in some areas with that produced by fossil fuels.
More easily foreseeable are processes in which the biocell does a dual job. It
has been pointed out that a brewery is a potential power plant if the heat of fermentation
can be converted to electricity. The same might apply to a bakery and to other industries
dependent on biochemical action.
Reversing the usual procedure, power can be fed to a biocell
to produce chemical reactions. Above. Dr. Y. H. Inami does so in a NASA study to
simulate reactions that occur in biocells.
The biocell may also prove of great value as a chemical process rather than a
power producer. Since the fuel cell can work both ways, electricity might be supplied
to the cell and the bacteria furnish useful by-products rather than electricity.
Another interesting suggestion is use of the biocell as a detector of germs during
possible germ warfare, since a foreign strain of bacteria would adversely affect
the electrical output.
The conventional fuel cell has a history of more than 20 years of accelerated
development. Even though it is still a long way from perfected, it is considered
worthy of spending additional millions toward improvement. Application of the biocell,
on the other hand, came just three years ago and it has made amazing progress in
that short time.
Many scientists feel that attempts to exploit bio-power this early are putting
the cart before the horse and that many more years of basic study are indicated
first. However, Ernest Cohn, head of NASA's Electrochemical Technology Projects,
points out an interesting parallel in the chemical industry. While papers and theses
are still being written describing original research on production of ammonia, we
nevertheless have an excess of manufacturing capacity for the compound.
Not sure just how the biocell really works, scientists and engineers are nevertheless
putting it to use. Given 20 years, it too may do some marvelous things. Meanwhile,
you can put together a simple bio-battery of your own and watch, or listen to, bug-power
go into action!
Posted January 8, 2020