With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), researchers at Penn State University (PSU) are developing microbial fuel cells to channel bacteria in wastewater into energy, according to a recent Science Nation report.
Environmental engineer Bruce Logan and his team have found that they can pour wastewater directly into a fuel cell and use the energy to create electricity. The way it works is the bacteria in the wastewater eat the organic waste, releasing electrons as a byproduct. Those electrons collect on carbon bristles in the fuel cell, eventually flowing through a circuit that can power a small fan or light bulb, the report explains.
“We can make all sorts of different kinds of energy,” Logan told Science Nation. “Typically, a microbial fuel cell produces electrical power or current, but if we add a little bit of voltage into the system, we can evolve hydrogen gas, which is really nice, because that”s a very environmentally friendly energy carrier. You can run cars on it; you can use it in many, many industries. And, we can link these reactors together in order to multiply the power that”s produced by each of these and to capture the power.”
Logan is also testing another system that would use salt water in the fuel cell to generate even more electricity, which would not only create energy, but also desalinate the water and treat the wastewater.
Logan says he expects microbial fuel cells will be ready for use in the real world in the next five to 10 years. The goal is to use them to generate enough electricity to power a wastewater treatment plant with energy left over to share with the nearby community.