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Microbial Fuel Cells Produce Electricity and Clean Water

Researchers at Penn State University have developed a system called a microbial reverse electrolysis cell (MRC), which is capable of not only producing clean energy, but also clean water.

Currently, microbial fuel cells are not efficient enough to generate significant amounts of energy from wastewater, but reverse-electrodialysis systems (RED) can, yet require costly materials to produce power.

The team of researchers combined the best of both systems to develop the MRC, which is said to generate “surprising” levels of electricity. Although right now, the MRC system still requires expensive membranes to operate, the research could spur on further innovation in the field.

The MRC uses a RED system, or stack, in the middle of a microbial fuel cell, which generates a current and raises the electrical potential in the fuel cell.

This results in the bacteria in the fuel cell speeding up their rate of consumption, which cleans the wastewater and generates electricity faster than without.

“The proposed technology is based on a microbial fuel cell (MFC) design. The cells process wastewater and generate an electrical current. Natural bacteria consume biodegradable material and electrons flow into a conductive surface (anode). Electrons flow out of the anode, through an external circuit and into a cathode where oxygen typically reacts to form water (H2O). The team’s winning design efficiently converts electricity recovered from the anode into hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) instead of water in a separate chamber. The hydrogen peroxide can then be used to disinfect wastewater.” – PSU

Using the MRC system instead of conventional wastewater treatments could result in a net gain in energy, as traditional processes consume about 1.2 kWh per kilo of waste treated, whereas the MRC is said to generate almost 1 kWh of electricity per kilo of material.

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