Microbial Fuel Cells: Turning Waste to Power

Microbial Fuel Cells: Turning Waste to Power

By Grigori Singovski

One of the major challenges for the energy industry in the coming century is to combine efficient production of energy with ecological standards. With an increasing emphasis put on the development of “green” energies, the work of Dr. Yan-Yu Chen and Dr. Hsiang-Yu Wang from Taiwan University shed a new light on the microbial fuel cell application. The authors developed a technology that allows producing “green” electricity using polluted water as fuel, combining cleaning the environment with a potentially infinite energy source.

The technology is based on a new form of an anode electrode composed of electricity-generating microbes encapsulated by T-junction microchannels in conductive microparticles made of diallyldimethylammonium chloride (DADMAC). The microorganisms process the substrate contained in the wastewater in order to generate an open circuit voltage (OCV) of 8mV in a small microtube (see figure). Interestingly, it is possible to couple the microtubes in order to increase the voltage and allow to power different kinds of small devices.

Left panel of the figure shows the DADMAC microcapsules. Image “b” and below (fluorescence) shows empty capsules with no microorganisms inside. Image “c” and below (fluorescence) shows a DADMAC capsule full of microorganisms. The chart on the right panel displays the voltage potential created by a full (orange) and empty (blue) capsule using wastewater in a microtube.

This technology is not meant to substitute the generation of electricity with a more classical current generating system but is suitable for low voltage wireless devices that require expensive and time consuming battery replacements.

There are multiple applications for this technology such as water treatment coupled with electricity generation or biosensors. Indeed, the current generated is directly proportional with the energy content in wastewater thus it is possible to use this technology, coupled with a bulb for example, in open water, rivers, and lakes in order to visualize pollution. The microorganisms can be selected to respond to different conditions such as water temperature and tolerance to salt, making this technology useful in any context.

This technology is still under investigation and, once refined, will take a substantial place in the fuel cell market that has been focused so far on the production of biogas and bioethanol.



Image courtesy of pixabay.com

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