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Research: Generate electricity via deep-sea hydrothermal vents

29 Oct 2013

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Researchers at the RIKEN Centre for Sustainable Resource Science, the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC), and the University of Tokyo have created a robotic system that employs natural hydrothermal vents on the sea floor to generate electricity. The system, which functions similar to a battery, could lead to a method that would deliver power to machines deep underneath the sea.

Hydrothermal fluid from deep-sea vents is enriched with reduced or electron-rich ions, while seawater contains oxidised or electron-depleted ions. By placing one electrode in the hydrothermal fluid and another in the seawater nearby, the system creates a chemical gradient that produces an electric current.

"Our biggest challenge was to construct remotely operated electrochemical systems for fuel cell operation on the deep sea floor," says Ryuhei Nakamura from the RIKEN Centre for Sustainable Resource Science.

The researchers tested their system at a natural hydrothermal vent and at an artificial vent drilled during the Integrated Ocean Drilling Programme– an international effort to study the world's seabeds. At both sites, the system generated sufficient power to illuminate three light-emitting diode (LED) lamps.

"This is the first demonstration of an electrochemical fuel cell at a hydrothermal vent," says Nakamura. "Previous attempts have been made based on the difference in temperature between the hydrothermal fluid and seawater, by thermoelectric conversion. Our method is more efficient thanks to special electrodes we made from an iridium-coated titanium mesh that resists corrosion."

Nakamura is hopeful that the new technology will, in addition to benefiting deep-ocean science on a practical level, improve the understanding of how biological ecosystems exploit energy sources in such extreme environments.

"I am very curious about carbon fixation in environments that are isolated from solar radiation, such as the deep ocean," he says. "Because there is no input energy from solar radiation, the reductive energy discharged from the Earth's interior sustains all the biological activity there."

Nakamura and his colleagues have speculated that bacteria, microorganisms, and even animals utilise electricity not only as an energy source but also as a signal for communication. "It would be fantastic if we could prove that nature was exploiting electrical energy millions of years before humans," he says.

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