Biomimetic file 162: Bacterial induced fuel cells

How a negative public perception can be turned into a positive attribute

shutterstock_60013882Image Source: Viktoriya/Shutterstock. A fuel cell* is a device that converts the chemical energy from a fuel into electricity through a chemical reaction of positively charged hydrogen ions with oxygen or another oxidizing agent

Highlight: “Escherichia coli (E. coli) is not something anyone wants to come into contact with; after all, this bacteria is responsible for fairly potent, sometimes dangerous, food poisoning…A team of researchers from Singapore have found a way to engineer E. coli to perform a very different role: It’s now a catalyst for a new hybrid fuel cell* that splits hydrogen from water with remarkable efficiency…”

Insight: it is a widespread misconception that electricity powered devices including vehicles are “clean” (i.e. pollution free). The truth is that it really depends on how the electricity is produced in the first place. Indeed, grid electricity is still widely produced from fossil fuel sources with various extents of environmental impacts (e.g. coal vs natural gas). Electricity produced from renewable energy sources is a much better alternative and hydrogen fuel cells are a great source of hope:  they only require water as a fuel and there is plenty of it available on the planet. The only problem is that it still currently takes a lot of energy to produce hydrogen. Perhaps microbes offer the solution to overcoming this barrier and could provide a much cheaper way of producing hydrogen for energy generation. Another good example of how an inconvenience (E.Coli) can be turned into a solution (fuel cell catalyst).

In business sometimes seemingly  small actions can quickly escalate to become a negative public perception which can affect the entire reputation of the company and therefore the bottom line. Once such situation arises it can be very difficult to reverse and recover. As a matter of fact the only way to get out of such an occurrence is to correct the mistake and rebuild a reputation based on the positive outcomes that result no matter how small.

For instance lest imagine the following scenario: A sugar cane company has been put into significant public spotlight for being responsible for large scale fires on its plantations. The fires are responsible for causing repeated occurrences of haze in nearby communities. After investigations it becomes clear that this company has allowed fires to be voluntarily and illegally lit on its properties in order to clear the land and facilitate plantation for the next season. While other options were possible such as using machinery to clear and prepare the land, burning fires was simply by far the cheapest option. Thinking it had done a great good to the company by saving millions, the direction was overconfident even to the point of giving bonuses out to the people involved. Little did they anticipate that after the fire started particular weather conditions materialized by a low pressure system pushed the fire smoke directly towards a major nearby city. Complaints from the public quickly pressured authorities to take actions and investigate. The company was severely punished through heavy fines, jail time for some people and most of all serious damages endured to the brand which has seen its stock prices sharply fall. After a reshuffling of the direction including the hire of an interim CEO, the company comes-up with an ambitious plan to regain public trust and positive growth. The plan involves the following:

  • Investments in machinery to mechanically clear the land and even loan the machines to competitors so they can also benefit;
  • Finance fire fighting efforts in the area through philanthropy but also volunteering of its staff;
  • Sponsor a state of the art  fire monitoring program in partnership with a satellite company;
  • Set a foundation to raise awareness and help people affected by respiratory illnesses from air pollution.

Combined with an active high profile marketing campaign, within a year the company manages to regain public trust which starts to reflect on its sales.

Are you facing a situation where an action has severely affected your company’s reputation? If so, perhaps try the above approach and remember that honesty of the response must be flawless as the company will now be under intense public scrutiny. Taking the easy way around a problem can sometimes result in good costs saving but comes with a significant risk factor which if materialized can in the end cost far more…

More information: here

What is Biomimetics: the field of gaining inspiration from nature first to solve some of our most difficult challenges. Instead of coming up with our own solutions to a problematic, the odds are that species or natural systems on the planet already offer an ultimate solution. This simple fact is also another strong case to preserve species at all cost as the intellectual heritage contained within or through the study of species is both irreplaceable and invaluable…

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