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Clean Power university of colorado researchers develop microbial fuel cells that treat wastewater, create electricity and produce hydrogen

Published on December 4th, 2010 | by Tina Casey

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New Low Energy Water Treatment Purifies, Desalinates and Makes Hydrogen, Too

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December 4th, 2010 by  

university of colorado researchers develop microbial fuel cells that treat wastewater, create electricity and produce hydrogenIn an amazing sustainability quadruple play, researchers at the University of Colorado Denver are working on a fuel cell that can desalinate water, treat wastewater and generate electricity in a single process, while producing hydrogen gas that is re-used to make the treatment process run efficiently. What’s amazing about it is that the operation is run by microscopic living organisms that exist all around us and even inside of us, otherwise known as microbes – yes, microbes.

Microbial Fuel Cells

Fuel cells produce energy through a chemical reaction, so the use of living beings might sound a bit far fetched but let’s not sell the little critters short. After all, microbes came to the rescue of all human life when our planet was viciously attacked by alien invaders with superior technology (at least according to H.G. Wells in the sci-fi classic War of the Worlds). More to the point, researchers have been already demonstrated the ability of microbes to generate electricity as they metabolize food, and the result has been an emerging generation of fuel cells that can scavenge energy from parts of the environment where large colonies of bacteria can be found, which basically means you can get a fuel cell to run on wastewater or even on mud.

The New Super-Duper Desalinating Microbial Fuel Cell

The Colorado researchers have stepped up the microbial fuel cell – wastewater connection to include a desalination capability, and that’s where it gets interesting. They were stumped for a while on how to get the whole operation to run efficiently, until they investigated the potential for storing the hydrogen waste gas from the process. Building on research conducted at Penn State University, the team produced a study demonstrating that the process results in enough hydrogen to run the desalination component. Not only that, it creates excess hydrogen that can be put to other uses.

The U.S. Navy and Microbial Fuel Cells

The Office of Naval Research is behind the Colorado study, which should come as no surprise.  For obvious reasons, the U.S. Navy has a long term interest in developing high efficiency desalination processes, and now it foresees a future in which entire ships are powered by microbial fuel cells which can scavenge energy on-the-go from seawater. Bio-based fuel cells and batteries are also of great interest to other branches of the armed services, so it’s a safe bet that microbial fuel cells will cross over into mainstream civilian use…especially if the incoming Congress continues funding for new energy research.

Image: Water by Pink Sherbet Photography on flickr.com.

Follow me on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.

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About the Author

Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.



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  • http://calnatives.com Martha Booz

    This technology, if development pans out, could make a huge difference in resolving our energy and waste water problems, as well as our fresh water problems. Please keep us informed about future innovations on microbial fuel cells.

  • dust bowl farmer

    I am a farmer and wish this technology were available commercially already.

    East Cherry Creek Water and Sanitation District, located in the southern Denver suburbs, hatched up a plan to put highly saline reverse osmosis discharge water into an aquifer dozens of farmers depend on for irrigation.

    This technology would be perfect for them and me as well, as they then wouldn’t have the need to externalize their brine water disposal costs onto farmers.

    • Tina Casey

      To “dust bowl farmer:” Thanks for your comment. You are right, we need solutions that can address multiple problems at the same time without creating new problems and new expenses. The EPA’s AgStar program is another good example of finding solutions that help farmers cut cuts while reducing pollution.

  • http://climatechange.foreignpolicyblogs.com/ Bill Hewitt

    Fantastic story, Tina. A quadruple play indeed. I hope this sort of technology will scale all the way up. Desertec (http://www.desertec.org/), for one, certainly is looking to desalination as a key element in its scheme. Clean water (http://www.worldwaterday.org/) is a scarce resource, as we know, in much of the world.

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