Bio-electrochemical systems: Electricity generators of the future?

Oct 28, 2013
Bio-electrochemical systems: electricity generators of the future?
Credit: Shutterstock

Billions of euros are spent treating trillions of litres of wastewater every year, consuming substantial amounts of energy. However, this wastewater could act as a renewable resource, saving significant quantities of energy and money, as it contains organic pollutants which can be used to produce electricity, hydrogen and high-value chemicals, such as caustic soda.

This can be achieved if the organic matter is broken down by electrically-active bacteria in an , which, at the same time, helps clean up the . Examples of such 'bio-electrochemical systems' include (MFCs) and microbial electrolysis cells (MECs).

The EU is looking to encourage innovative projects that could lead to significant . One such initiative has been carried out by a team of researchers in Ireland, which focused on the field of bio-electrochemical systems' and looked into how altering the chemistry of an electrode surface could produce more .

The study 'Arylamine functionalization of carbon anodes for improved microbial electrocatalysis', funded through the Marie Curie Programme, could have an immediate impact in a number of sectors looking to improve their environmental and energy performance, including wastewater treatment and biochemical and biofuel production.

The project began by examining the microbial-electrode interface. This is where complex physical-chemical and biological interactions permit microbes to exchange electrons with solid electrodes, to produce bio-electrochemical systems.

The team found evidence that could help microbial communities to connect to the electrode, and thus produce more electricity more rapidly compared to unmodified electrodes. Electron exchange is at the heart of reactions that occur in the natural world, as well as in these so-called bio-electrochemical systems.

The team introduced arylamine functional groups to graphite electrodes. Arylamine is an enzyme that catalyses a specific chemical reaction. The addition of this enzyme resulted in improved initial catalysis for acetate oxidation by microbial biofilms over that observed on unmodified anodes.

The researchers proved that 'wiring' microbes to conduct and produce electricity faster is feasible. The research was carried out by the Biomolecular Electronics Research Laboratory in Galway, Ireland, which has been working on probing conditions for selection of by microbes for several years.

Although further work is needed to understand important biological and engineering issues that underpin the biotechnology, these laboratory experiments have shown that bio-electrochemical systems can work. So far, however, only a few such pilot studies have been run in real-world conditions and more pilot studies and scaled-up demonstration projects are needed to prove the reliability of the systems.

In addition, costs have to be competitive with other and chemical production processes before the biotechnology can be adopted on a commercial scale. However, researchers are optimistic that commercial installations could be realised in two to five years' time, according to a recent European Commission briefing on the subject.

Explore further: Wiring microbes to conduct and produce electricity faster

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Wiring microbes to conduct and produce electricity faster

Sep 04, 2013

A team of researchers in Ireland have found evidence that altering the chemistry of an electrode surface (surface engineering) can help microbial communities to connect to the electrode to produce more electricity ...

Microbes strip power from poo

Sep 17, 2013

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 ...

Recommended for you

Seoul to provide smartphone-charging down by the stream

16 hours ago

Seoul's mobile users will be able to make use of outdoor charging stations at a popular downtown stream, powered by mini-hydroelectric turbines that use the stream's current. The city is building the recharging ...

Tesla, Chinese firm plan 400 charging stations

17 hours ago

Tesla Motors Co. and a state-owned Chinese phone carrier announced plans Friday to build 400 charging stations for electric cars in a new bid to promote popular adoption of the technology in China.

Cool roofs in China can save energy and reduce emissions

Aug 28, 2014

(Phys.org) —Working with Chinese researchers, the Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) has conducted the first comprehensive study of cool roofs in China and concluded ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

rwinners
not rated yet Oct 28, 2013
I'll wait to see just how the economics of all this works out....