Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Watts from wastewater: New device produces power while treating sewage


A new technology is being developed that can turn raw sewage into raw power. The device, called a microbial fuel cell, not only treats wastewater, but also provides a clean energy source with the potential for enormous financial savings, according to scientists at Pennsylvania State University.

Although power output is still relatively low, they say the technology is improving rapidly and eventually could be used to run a small wastewater treatment plant, which would be especially attractive in developing countries. It also could be used to treat waste from animal farms, food processing plants and even manned space missions. The report appears in the Nov. 1 edition of Environmental Science & Technology, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Chemical Society, the world’s largest scientific society.

Similar in design to a hydrogen fuel cell, the microbial fuel cell captures electrons that are naturally released by bacteria as they digest organic matter and then it converts the electrons into electrical current. “We generated up to 72 watts per square meter, which is 2.8 times that generated in a larger device reported earlier this year in ES&T,” says Bruce Logan, Ph.D., an environmental engineer at Pennsylvania State University and co-author of the paper. . While still a relatively small amount of power, the researchers have used these types of devices to run a small fan.

The technology is developing rapidly. Since submitting the current paper, Logan and his colleagues have tweaked microbial fuel cell devices to produce up to 350 watts per square meter. “Two years ago we had 0.1 . . . and now we’re in the 100s,” he says. “We’d like to get in the range of 500-1000. We’re looking for another order of magnitude increase.” Logan doesn’t envision using his microbial fuel cell for the same type of applications as hydrogen fuel cells, such as in automobiles or houses. “We see using this any place where there’s a high concentration of organic matter,” he says.

The most obvious application would be in wastewater treatment plants, which essentially could power themselves as they treat water. Such a technology would be particularly useful in developing countries, Logan suggests, because it would produce a net amount of electricity, offering a reason to keep a treatment plant running besides just treating wastewater. “Even if it’s only powering a cell phone tower, that would be a reason enough to keep it going,” he says.

David Bagley, a scientist at the University of Toronto, has calculated that the energy potential in wastewater is almost 10 times the cost to treat it. “If we could achieve just one-twentieth of that power, we could break even,” Logan says. “We’re confident we’re going to be able to do more than that.” “In our system, the two electrodes are separated by a proton exchange membrane (PEM), just like in a conventional hydrogen fuel cell,” says Logan. “It opens the door to using existing hydrogen-gas based stack technologies with bacteria in water.”

At the moment, scientists can’t exactly pull a hydrogen fuel cell off the shelf and use it to treat wastewater, but the design principles are very similar. Wastewater flows on one side of the cell and air flows on the other, continuously generating electricity while also removing organic matter from the water. The device also could be used to treat waste from the food processing industry and farms — especially hog farms, which have tremendous problems with costs and odors, Logan says. NASA scientists are even developing a similar technology to be used in manned space missions, turning the astronauts’ waste into extra power. Logan plans to build a larger version of his microbial fuel cell for demonstrations; he hopes to have the design completed in about six months.

The American Chemical Society is a nonprofit organization, chartered by the U.S. Congress, with a multidisciplinary membership of more than 159,000 chemists and chemical engineers. It publishes numerous scientific journals and databases, convenes major research conferences and provides educational, science policy and career programs in chemistry. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.

Michael Bernstein | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Power and Electrical Engineering:

nachricht 'Super yeast' has the power to improve economics of biofuels
18.10.2016 | University of Wisconsin-Madison

nachricht Engineers reveal fabrication process for revolutionary transparent sensors
14.10.2016 | University of Wisconsin-Madison

All articles from Power and Electrical Engineering >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

Im Focus: New Products - Highlights of COMPAMED 2016

COMPAMED has become the leading international marketplace for suppliers of medical manufacturing. The trade fair, which takes place every November and is co-located to MEDICA in Dusseldorf, has been steadily growing over the past years and shows that medical technology remains a rapidly growing market.

In 2016, the joint pavilion by the IVAM Microtechnology Network, the Product Market “High-tech for Medical Devices”, will be located in Hall 8a again and will...

Im Focus: Ultra-thin ferroelectric material for next-generation electronics

'Ferroelectric' materials can switch between different states of electrical polarization in response to an external electric field. This flexibility means they show promise for many applications, for example in electronic devices and computer memory. Current ferroelectric materials are highly valued for their thermal and chemical stability and rapid electro-mechanical responses, but creating a material that is scalable down to the tiny sizes needed for technologies like silicon-based semiconductors (Si-based CMOS) has proven challenging.

Now, Hiroshi Funakubo and co-workers at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, in collaboration with researchers across Japan, have conducted experiments to...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

Resolving the mystery of preeclampsia

21.10.2016 | Health and Medicine

Stanford researchers create new special-purpose computer that may someday save us billions

21.10.2016 | Information Technology

From ancient fossils to future cars

21.10.2016 | Materials Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>