If it sounds like the set-up to an alien invasion film, you might not be far off. A rare strain of bacteria discovered hurtling to Earth from space has scientists excited – not only because of its rarity on Earth, but because it could be used as a new source of electricity. It would seem the next big energy technology to hit Earth quite literally fell from the sky.
The mysterious bacteria was discovered floating in the Wear Estuary in County Durham near Darlington in the UK. The goo floating in the estuary was scooped up by scientists, who were then amazed by what they found. Not only was the bacteria originally from the Earth’s stratosphere, known more commonly for satellites orbiting Earth, it was discovered to be nearly twice as efficient in its microbial fuel properties than anything found elsewhere on Earth – after a bit of mixing.
Bacteria in space has been observed in the past, with a study conducted in 2001 shedding light on the subject as a possibility. Only now are scientists fully recognizing just how powerful this new development could become. The new bacteria, named Bacillus stratosphericus, leaves previous top contenders for biofuel generation in the dust. The last biofuel study to examine the potential for bacteria and power generation up until this point has been 105 watts per cubic meter. This new extraterrestrial visitor has just surpassed 200 watts per cubic meter.
200 watts is pretty good for an easily grown bacteria. But while it may not be enough power to keep a car running or power a whole house, it could easily make a dent in the power bill of most homes. If the power output of the bacteria were only 200 watts per hour, it could power a table fan (10-20 watts), a clock radio (1-5 Watts), a laptop computer (25-50 watts), a CB radio (5 Watts), and one of those powerful but energy inefficient 100 watt incandescent light bulbs with plenty of power left over to charge your cell phone and whatever gadgets you may have lying around.
Is it alien life? It’s difficult to say for sure just where this mystery bacteria came from originally, but scientists are currently pointing at a terrestrial origin, being carried up into the stratosphere by natural forces where it has likely remained, thriving in the zero gravity environment.
In 1967 Apollo 12 astronauts were surprised to discover bacteria still alive in a camera that had been left on the moon for nearly 31 months. The bacteria, thought to be long dead, somehow survived in a near vacuum state with no atmosphere to protect it.
In 2006, a study by Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper discovered the potential for bacteria to not only survive in space, but thrive in zero-g environments, lending them relative super powers over their terrestrial counterparts as far as versatility and infectiousness were concerned. Evolving for thousands of years in space as a super bacteria appears to have given Bacillus stratosphericus a leg up on other biofuels.
And keep in mind, this is just one bacteria that then happened to fall to Earth in a large enough clump to be caught and examined by scientists. What else might be up there waiting to be discovered?