Biological engineers at Oregon State University have developed a microbial fuel cell capable of generating 10 times the electricity previously generated by existing technology.

Microbial fuel cells, also called biological fuel cells, produce energy by converting biodegradable materials in wastewater using bacteria. As the bacteria consume the organic materials present in the water, they shed electrons which pass through circuits and generate electricity. The newly developed fuel cell is more efficient than current versions because the researchers inserted a cloth layer between the anode and the cathode parts of the cell, thereby reducing the spacing between the two and upping the power density. In tests, the researchers were able to generate 1010 watts per cubic meter of reactor, enough to power 16 60-watt light bulbs. Previous electricity generation tests topped out at 115 watts.

“We have successfully modified the fuel cell structure to enhance power generation,” said study co-author Hong Liu, an assistant professor in the OSU Department of Biological and Ecological Engineering.

A byproduct of the energy that microbial fuel cells generate is clean water. As pollutants are removed from the wastewater, clean water is produced. With this substantial jump in electricity generation, self-contained fuel cells could provide both power and water to developing nations and the nearly 1 billion people without access to drinkable water.

In addition, wastewater treatment facilities could generate their own power and water supply from the very product they are working to dispose of. Since 5 percent of the electricity in the U.S. is used for water treatment, microbial fuel cells could also cut energy use and utility bills for facility operators.

Cleaning out toxic wastewater, generating clean electricity, and leaving behind drinkable water? Sounds like a real solution to several problems all at once.

[via EcoSeed]

Image Credit: OSU/Flickr