Microbes strip power from poo

Sep 17, 2013
Professor Tom Curtis, Newcastle University, with the new hydrogen Microbial Electrolysis Cell.

EPSRC-funded scientists have developed a process using microbes which removes the need to use electricity to process sewage at treatment plants. The microbes can also be used to produce large quantities of valuable hydrogen gas, a source of clean energy.

The team at Newcastle University and Northumbrian Water Ltd unveiled their research ("Fuelling the future") at the British Science Festival. They trialled out a hydrogen Microbial Electrolysis Cell (MEC) on sewage at a works on Tyneside.

As the raw sewage is pumped through the Microbial Fuel Cell, microbes growing on the carbon felting strip the electrons off the 'food' or sewage and transfer these to the anode, producing electricity. Meanwhile the that are left migrate to the cathode where they are reunited with the electrons which have been topped up with just enough energy to allow them to turn the hydrogen ions into . The energy required to "top up" the electrons is less than the energy released. So the system is potentially energy positive.

Currently this hydrogen is released, but the team say that the hydrogen could be collected as a clean and valuable fuel or, better still, the electrons and hydrogen could be combined to make higher value organic chemicals.

Currently around two per cent of all electricity used in the UK is used to treat wastewater.

Professor Tom Curtis from Newcastle University says: "We spend a lot of electricity treating sewage and it's totally unnecessary. Waste water contains two to three times more energy than we use to treat it so if we can harness that energy we can not only close the loop on to create a totally self-treating system, we will also have spare energy to use elsewhere.

"What's really clever about this system is that it works on at ambient temperature. Most anaerobic digesters require a high-energy, concentrated food source and heat to work properly which means the water has to be removed first and this is an energy-expensive process.

"What we have developed is a system that feeds on the waste as it arrives at the plant – the whole lot goes in and the microbes do all the hard work."

Explore further: Preparing for a zero-emission urban bus system

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Increasing efficiency of hydrogen production from green algae

Apr 15, 2013

New research results from Uppsala University, Sweden, instill hope of efficient hydrogen production with green algae being possible in the future, despite the prevailing scepticism based on previous research. The study, which ...

Recommended for you

Preparing for a zero-emission urban bus system

17 hours ago

In order to create a competitive and sustainable transport system, the EU must look to alternative fuels to replace or complement petrol and diesel. Not only will this reduce transport emissions but it will ...

Exploring the value of 'Energy Star' homes

17 hours ago

The numbers in neat columns tell—column by column, page by page—a story spread out across Carmen Carrión-Flores' desk at Binghamton University. It's a great story, she says; she just doesn't know how ...

Toward a networked energy future

Oct 29, 2014

February 1, 2050, is a good day for German electricity consumers. The breeze off the north coast is blowing so strongly that offshore wind farms and the wind turbines on land are running non-stop. Since it's ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.