Magnetite is a commonly found iron oxide with the strongest magnetic quality of any rock mineral found on Earth. Almost all igneous and metamorphic rocks are composed of magnetite. The influence of its magnetic properties is a crucial player in tectonic movement and was first harnessed for the creation of compasses. Now, research has provided one more use for the mineral, one that is all too relevant for global concerns.
Bacteria were found to manipulate particle samples of magnetite through the exchange of electrons. When exposed to light, the species Rhodopseudomonas palustris took electrons from the magnetite samples, oxidizing them and neutralizing the charge. Without light, the bacteria completed the cycle by recharging the sample with electrons in a process called reduction. A battery experiencing this cyclical back-and-forth of electron exchange would see a new charge each time it regained the electrons held by the bacteria.
Happening on the microscopic level, this phenomenon suggests a potential source of alternative energy, one that would eliminate pollutants and alleviate the stresses on the environment. Scientists involved in the experimentation were hopeful that other bacteria—even species that thrive away from iron—could show similar capacities.
The lead scientist behind the investigation, Dr. James Byrne, explains that the redox potential of these bacteria with magnetite provides helpful answers to questions of availability. That this species of bacteria can undergo reactions with magnetite indicates the ability to thrive where other elements with similar tendencies are not as common.
Providing even just one purposive outlet for magnetite hints at the likelihood of finding several others. Byrne points to genetic engineering as the next step in accommodating non-iron metabolizing species of bacteria to redox susceptibility with magnetite. Another scientist on the case, Andreas Kappler recalled the use of magnetite to reduce the toxic quality of other metals.
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Still in its embryonic stages, this discovery could provide alternative resources to future generations.