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Sewage Power

May 9, 2012

Microbial fuel cells, which clean wastewater and generate electricity, are getting closer to practicality.



Electricity from sewage.  I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

As bacteria digest sewage, they also generate electrons.  Scientists have tried to harness this phenomenon through microbial fuel cells, in which bacteria generate usable power as they clean wastewater.  Now, electro-microbiologist Oriana Bretschger, of the J. Craig Venter Institute, has announced big strides this two-in-one technology.  They’ve taken the typical lab prototype and debugged it, scaled it up, and made it cheaper to build.

ORIANA BRETSCHGER (J. Craig Venter Institute):

We’ve moved away from your typical expensive hand-blown laboratory equipment, into something that you could buy from your typical hardware store.

Their current model is about the size of a washing machine, removes 97 percent of organic waste from the water, and is up to six times more energy-efficient than past designs.  The researchers hope that eventually, the technology could make wastewater treatment pay for itself, from energy production. I’m Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the Science Society.

An improved “microbial fuel cell” cleans municipal sewage and generates electricity at the same time. (Orianna Bretschger/J. Craig Venter Institute)