A new fuel-cell concept, developed by an Michigan State University researcher, will allow biodiesel plants to eliminate the creation of hazardous wastes while removing their dependence on fossil fuel from their production process.
The platform, which uses microbes to glean ethanol from glycerol and has the added benefit of cleaning up the wastewater, will allow producers to reincorporate the ethanol and the water into the fuel-making process, said Gemma Reguera, MSU microbiologist and one of the co-authors.
“With a saturated glycerol market, traditional approaches see producers pay hefty fees to have toxic wastewater hauled off to treatment plants,” she said. “By cleaning the water with microbes on-site, we’ve come up with a way to allow producers to generate bioethanol, which replaces petrochemical methanol. At the same time, they are taking care of their hazardous waste problem.”
The results, which appear in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, show that the key to Reguera’s platform is her patented adaptive-engineered bacteria – Geobacter sulfurreducens. Geobacter are naturally occurring microbes that have proved promising in cleaning up nuclear waste as well in improving other biofuel processes.
Much of Reguera’s research with these bacteria focuses on engineering their conductive pili or nanowires. These hair-like appendages are the managers of electrical activity during a cleanup and biofuel production. First, Reguera, along with lead authors and MSU graduate students Allison Speers and Jenna Young, evolved Geobacter to withstand increasing amounts of toxic glycerol.
The next step, the team searched for partner bacteria that could ferment it into ethanol while generating byproducts that ‘fed’ the Geobacter. “It took some tweaking, but we eventually developed a robust bacterium to pair with Geobacter,” Reguera said. “We matched them up like dance partners, modifying each of them to work seamlessly together and eliminate all of the waste.”
Together, the bacteria’s appetite for the toxic byproducts is inexhaustible. “They feast like they’re at a Las Vegas buffet,” she added. “One bacterium ferments the glycerol waste to produce bioethanol, which can be reused to make biodiesel from oil feedstocks. Geobacter removes any waste produced during glycerol fermentation to generate electricity. It is a win-win situation.”
The hungry microbes are the featured component of Reguera’s microbial electrolysis cells, or MECs. These fuel cells do not harvest electricity as an output. Rather, they use a small electrical input platform to generate hydrogen and increase the MEC’s efficiency even more. The promising process already has caught the eye of economic developers, who are helping scale up the effort.
Through a Michigan Translational Research and Commercialization grant, Reguera and her team are developing prototypes that can handle larger volumes of waste. Reguera also is in talks with MBI, the bio-based technology “de-risking” enterprise operated by the MSU Foundation, to develop industrial-sized units that could handle the capacities of a full-scale biodiesel plant.
The next step will be field tests with a Michigan-based biodiesel manufacturer.
Layne Cameron | Eurek Alert!
Multi-institutional collaboration uncovers how molecular machines assemble
02.12.2016 | Salk Institute
Fertilized egg cells trigger and monitor loss of sperm’s epigenetic memory
02.12.2016 | IMBA - Institut für Molekulare Biotechnologie der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften GmbH
A multi-institutional research collaboration has created a novel approach for fabricating three-dimensional micro-optics through the shape-defined formation of porous silicon (PSi), with broad impacts in integrated optoelectronics, imaging, and photovoltaics.
Working with colleagues at Stanford and The Dow Chemical Company, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign fabricated 3-D birefringent...
In experiments with magnetic atoms conducted at extremely low temperatures, scientists have demonstrated a unique phase of matter: The atoms form a new type of quantum liquid or quantum droplet state. These so called quantum droplets may preserve their form in absence of external confinement because of quantum effects. The joint team of experimental physicists from Innsbruck and theoretical physicists from Hannover report on their findings in the journal Physical Review X.
“Our Quantum droplets are in the gas phase but they still drop like a rock,” explains experimental physicist Francesca Ferlaino when talking about the...
The Max Planck Institute for Physics (MPP) is opening up a new research field. A workshop from November 21 - 22, 2016 will mark the start of activities for an innovative axion experiment. Axions are still only purely hypothetical particles. Their detection could solve two fundamental problems in particle physics: What dark matter consists of and why it has not yet been possible to directly observe a CP violation for the strong interaction.
The “MADMAX” project is the MPP’s commitment to axion research. Axions are so far only a theoretical prediction and are difficult to detect: on the one hand,...
Broadband rotational spectroscopy unravels structural reshaping of isolated molecules in the gas phase to accommodate water
In two recent publications in the Journal of Chemical Physics and in the Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters, researchers around Melanie Schnell from the Max...
The efficiency of power electronic systems is not solely dependent on electrical efficiency but also on weight, for example, in mobile systems. When the weight of relevant components and devices in airplanes, for instance, is reduced, fuel savings can be achieved and correspondingly greenhouse gas emissions decreased. New materials and components based on gallium nitride (GaN) can help to reduce weight and increase the efficiency. With these new materials, power electronic switches can be operated at higher switching frequency, resulting in higher power density and lower material costs.
Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE together with partners have investigated how these materials can be used to make power...
16.11.2016 | Event News
01.11.2016 | Event News
14.10.2016 | Event News
02.12.2016 | Medical Engineering
02.12.2016 | Agricultural and Forestry Science
02.12.2016 | Physics and Astronomy