Origami, the Japanese art of paper folding, was the inspiration behind the design of a battery powered by bacteria. Binghamton University/Seokheun Choi

One man’s municipal waste is another’s inspiration for renewable energy. Researchers in the U.S. have found a way to harness the power of bacteria to create a battery that’s made of paper, won’t harm the environment, can be used in areas of the world with limited resources, and costs just 5 cents to make, according to a study published in the July issue of the journal Nano Energy.

Microbial respiration – the process by which bacteria turn nutrients into energy – is the main component of the innovative power source. The idea was to create a low-cost battery that could be produced in regions of the world with scarce resources. The battery is about the size of a matchbook and its design was based on origami, the Japanese art of paper folding.

Researchers have said the battery can generate enough power to run a paper-based biosensor, commonly used by health care workers in developing countries to identify diseases, with just a drop of bacteria-containing liquid. "Dirty water has a lot of organic matter,” said Seokheun Choi, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Binghamton University in New York, which led the study, in a statement. “Any type of organic material can be the source of bacteria for the bacterial metabolism.”

Other materials that could be used to power the battery are municipal waste or watershed, which are often readily accessible in developing areas. Plus, the battery is biodegradable, so there’s no harm to the environment, unlike traditional batteries which can leak harmful and toxic chemicals if not disposed of properly.

This certainly isn’t the first time bacteria have been used as a power source. Researchers in Germany previously developed a battery that breaks down glucose to produce electrons to power lights or small motors.

“There is an ever-increasing demand for sources of alternative energy. The conservation of fossil fuels and the phasing out of nuclear energy in Germany have sped this process up,” Thorben Meyer, one of the researchers on the German battery project, said in 2013. “It is not only large-scale electricity production which pollutes the environment, but also household batteries, which contain many harmful substances.”