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Renewable energy sources have diverse origins, a feature that demands equally diverse technologies to capture them. My interest in these (new) technologies resulted in this blog. If will focus on well developed technologies that are already put into practice, and on promising technologies that are still under development.

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Sunday, June 22, 2008

Microbial fuel cells produce electricity from wastewater

Source: Ecotality Life, International Harald Tribune, Penn State Live

Microbial fuel cells
are a hot topic among environmental biotechnologists. Basically, the microbial fuel cell is a battery in which bacteria consume water-soluble waste such as sugar, starch and alcohols. The battery produces electricity plus clean water. These technologies will make it possible to generate electricity while treating domestical or industrial wastewater. The organic molecules present in the wastewater (the 'waste') posses a certain amount of chemical energy, which is released when converting them to simpler molecules like CO2. The microbial fuel cell is thus a device that converts the chemical energy present in water-soluble waste into electrical energy by the catalytic reaction of microorganisms.

Diagram copyright © 2007 American Society for Microbiology.

Recently, scientists (the group of Professor Jürg Keller) and the Australian beer maker Foster's are teaming up to generate clean energy from brewery waste water - by using sugar-consuming bacteria. "Brewery waste water is a particularly good source because it is very biodegradable." Professor Keller said. It is also highly concentrated, he said, which helps improve the performance of the cell. He expected the brewery cell would produce 2 kilowatts of power - enough to power a single household, which is not that much, but it's primarily a wastewater treatment that has the added benefit of creating electricity.

Also Anheuser-Busch is supporting a project run by researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, by supplying wastewater from their brewery. They are more optimistic. They a bioelectricity generating wastewater treatment system in just one large food-processing plant could power as much as 900 American single-family households.

And the potential applications are not limited to brewery wastewater! Prof. Bruce Logan, from Penn State University (who co-invented the process), showed that microbial fuel cells can produce electricity directly from wastewater skimmed from the settling pond of a treatment plant. In other words, one can now generate electricity while simultaneously cleaning the wastewater that you flush down the drain or toilet!


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