Wastewater Treatment Plants Could Aid Electricity Generation

A team of researchers of Kaunas University of Technology (KTU), Lithuania are working on enhancing the effectiveness of microbial fuel cells (MFC) by using adapted graphite felt. Principal results reveal that the new MFC can produce 20% higher voltage than usual cells.

Image credit: Kaunas University of Technology (KTU)

In the last two decades, almost three-fourths of human-caused emissions came from the burning of fossil fuels. Increasing pollution and decreasing fossil energy resources embolden scientists to seek for new clean and sustainable alternative energy resources. Microbial fuel cells, which are also being researched at KTU laboratories, have broad usage possibilities and are one of the cleanest recognised energy sources. MFCs are driven by living microorganisms with clean and sustainable features; they can produce electricity from an extensive range of organic substrates under natural conditions.

Microbial fuel production is probably the only technology, in which the electricity is being generated from oxidation of organic compounds in room temperature. In other words, there is no need to burn anything, and the process is not depending on sunlight.

Dr. Kristina Kantmnienė, Researcher at KTU Faculty of Chemical Technology

According to KTU researchers, MFC technology is unique because of its multifunctional application: for instance, wastewater and slime, accumulating in wastewater treatment plants can be also used as food for bacteria. Integration of MFC into wastewater treatment system would considerably decrease the usage of electrical energy for its exploitation and would turn the plant into the closed ecosystem. The energy surplus created by MFC might be combined into the electricity grid and used somewhere else.

Although the idea that microorganisms can produce electricity was put forth in 1911, it became more actively explored in the 2000's. Groups of researchers worldwide are working with the MFC technology, trying to enhance the efficiency of the cells.

The KTU team is examining the qualities and biocompatibility of MFC anodes, as the efficiency of microbial fuel cells by large part rely on them.

In the framework of the interdisciplinary research project “Innovative microbial fuel cells for sustainable production of bioelectricity” (MicrobElas) KTU researchers have created an MFC prototype, which uses adapted graphite felt as an anode.

The modification of the anode allowed to increase the cell voltage; it is 20 percent higher than that of the control MFC with the usual anode. Although we are researching this technology only for a year, the first results are really inspiring, says Kantimienė.

Dr. Kristina Kantmnienė, Researcher at KTU Faculty of Chemical Technology

The researchers envisage that although MFC technology will not put out of place other sources of renewable energy, it could be useful in the small wastewater treatment plants or in remote regions where electrical energy supply is inadequate.

In May, the results of the research will be presented at the Topical Meeting of International Society of Electrochemistry in Vilnius.

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