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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Nanoscale membranes that chemically isolate and electronically wire up the abiotic/biotic interface


By electrochemically coupling microbial and abiotic catalysts, bioelectrochemical systems such as microbial electrolysis cells and microbial electrosynthesis systems synthesize energy-rich chemicals from energy-poor precursors with unmatched efficiency. However, to circumvent chemical incompatibilities between the microbial cells and inorganic materials that result in toxicity, corrosion, fouling, and efficiency-degrading cross-reactions between oxidation and reduction environments, bioelectrochemical systems physically separate the microbial and inorganic catalysts by macroscopic distances, thus introducing ohmic losses, rendering these systems impractical at scale. Here we electrochemically couple an inorganic catalyst, a SnO2 anode, with a microbial catalyst, Shewanella oneidensis, via a 2-nm-thick silica membrane containing -CN and -NO2 functionalized p-oligo(phenylene vinylene) molecular wires. This membrane enables electron flow at 0.51 μA cm-2 from microbial catalysts to the inorganic anode, while blocking small molecule transport. Thus the modular architecture avoids chemical incompatibilities without ohmic losses and introduces an immense design space for scale up of bioelectrochemical systems.

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