Winter 2017

Soil safety

Shewanella oneidensis is a ubiquitous, globally distributed soil bacterium.

We’ve long been told not to throw old lithium ion batteries in the trash. Now, researchers from the University of Minnesota and the University of Wisconsin have found that materials in the rechargeable batteries used to power electric vehicles, laptop computers, and smartphones can harm a key microorganism in soil.

University of Minnesota chemist and Elmore H. Northey Professor of Chemistry Christy Haynes was one of a trio of investigators to conduct what may be the first study of its kind examining the environmental impact of nickel manganese cobalt oxide (NMC), an emerging material being incorporated into lithium ion battery technology. 

They tested the effects of NMC decomposition on Shewanella oneidensis, a hardy soil bacterium known for its ability to convert metal ions into nutrients, and found ions released by NMC inhibited the bacterium’s growth and respiration.

Because it is found throughout the environment, S. oneidensis is “particularly relevant for studies of potentially metal-releasing engineered nanomaterials,” Haynes says.

The group is now exploring how these ions affect bacterial gene expression and eventually plans to study the effects of NMC on complex organisms.