“If we want to understand electroactive microorganisms, we need to understand their thermodynamics”
Dr Benjamin Korth is carrying out a research stay at LEQUIA thanks to a prize awarded to his doctoral thesis, which studied the thermodynamics of bioelectroactive microorganisms. We take advantage of this excellent opportunity to talk to him about the potential of bioelectrochemical systems and how the study of thermodynamics can contribute to it industrial development.
Good morning, Benjamin! You work at UFZ Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Leipzig, in Germany, in the research group on “Bioelectrocatalysis and Bioelectrotechnology”. Can you briefly explain the group’s research topics?
The group leader and my PhD supervisor Dr Falk Harnisch established the group in 2012 and since then, we could build up considerable expertise in the fields of thermodynamics, microbial ecology, and electroactive microorganisms. Furthermore, the group develops reactors for bioelectrotechnological processes and works on electrobiorefinery concepts. Thus, the group’s research topics are fairly specialized but they host a lot of application potential for the whole community and far beyond its borders.
Your thesis led to the first heat measurements of electroactive microorganisms. Why is thermodynamics of electroactive microorganisms so important?
Because thermodynamics is the foundation for every microbial process! It defines, together with genetics and kinetics, if certain processes occur or not. Imagine that thermodynamics determines a window of opportunities that can be harnessed by microorganisms with a certain genetic equipment performing reactions with sufficiently fast rates to allow microbial growth. Consequently, if we want to understand electroactive microorganisms, we need to understand their thermodynamics.
The great potential of bioelectrochemical systems has been widely demonstrated at lab scale. However, there is still a little way to go for full industrial upscale. How a better knowledge of the thermodynamics of electroactive microorganisms could contribute to shorten this distance?
As thermodynamics describes the efficiency of energy conversions, the thermodynamic analysis of any energy producing or chemical process is a prerequisite for their industrial application. We should also do this for electroactive microorganisms as they convert chemical energy stored in organic material in electrical energy or vice versa.
Your thesis was awarded with Helmholtz Doctoral Prize, which consists of a cash prize and a stipend for travel and accommodation expenses to support a research visit of up to six months at an international research institution. Why did you choose University of Girona? Had you previously worked with Dr Sebastià Puig?
When I talked to my girlfriend about a research stay abroad, she imposed two conditions: It has to be warmer than in Germany and it should be close to the sea. These requirements decreased the number of potential institutes. And, of course, it also helped that my supervisor already collaborated with Sebastià.
Have your expectations been fulfilled so far? Any plans for future collaborations?
Yes, definitely. Together with Dr Narcis Pous, I could already start two interesting experiments. One is related to an EU project and the second is about the fundamentals of bioelectrochemical nitrogen removal. I hope to initiate two more projects within the remaining weeks in order to strengthen the cooperation between Girona and Leipzig.
When you join a new research institution, there is always something that strikes you: other rules, other procedures, other attitudes…. Normally, these differences are greater if the research institution is based in another country. Can you tell me a couple of things that have really surprised you at the professional and/or personal level?
The biggest difference is definitely the lunch time. In Leipzig, I have lunch together with my research group at 11:30. Here in Girona, we eat around 2 pm. But actually, I could adapt quite easy as this lunch time reminds me at my study times: end the day late, sleep long in the morning, and have a late lunch.