Generating electricity through the process of cleaning organic waste also kills bacteria harmful to humans

A scientific breakthrough has taken an emerging biotechnology a step closer to being used to treat wastewater in the Developing World.

Researchers at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) (Ieropoulos & Greenman) have discovered that technology they have developed which has already been proven to generate electricity through the process of cleaning organic waste, such as urine, also kills bacteria harmful to humans.

Experts have shown that a special process they have developed in which wastewater flows through a series of cells filled with electroactive microbes can be used to attack and destroy a pathogen – the potentially deadly Salmonella.

It is envisaged that the microbial fuel cell (MFC) technology could one day be used in the Developing World in areas lacking sanitation and installed in homes in the Developed World to help clean waste before it flows into the municipal sewerage network, reducing the burden on water companies to treat effluent.

Professor Ioannis Ieropoulos, who is leading the research, said it was necessary to establish the technology could tackle pathogens in order for it to be considered for use in the Developing World.

The findings of the research have been published in leading scientific journal PLOS ONE. Professor Ieropoulos, Director of the Bristol BioEnergy Centre, based in the Bristol Robotics Laboratory at UWE Bristol, said it was the first time globally it had been reported that pathogens could be destroyed using this method.

He said: “We were really excited with the results – it shows we have a stable biological system in which we can treat waste, generate electricity and stop harmful organisms making it through to the sewerage network.”

It had already been established that the MFC technology created by Dr Ieropoulos’ team could successfully clean organic waste, including urine, to the extent that it could be safely released into the environment. Through the same process, electricity is generated – enough to charge a mobile phone or power lighting in earlier trials.

In the unique system, being developed with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the organic content of the urine is consumed by microbes inside the fuel cells, breaking it down and creating energy.

For the pathogen experiment, Salmonella enteritidis was added to urine flowing through the system, then checked at the end of the process to identify if bacteria numbers had been reduced. Results revealed pathogen numbers had dropped significantly, beyond minimum requirements used by the sanitation sector.

Other pathogens, including viruses, are now being tested and there are plans for experiments which will establish if the MFC system can eliminate pathogens entirely.

John Greenman, Emeritus Professor of Microbiology, said: “The wonderful outcome in this study was that tests showed a reduction in the number of pathogens beyond the minimum expectations in the sanitation world.

“We have reduced the number of pathogenic organisms significantly but we haven’t shown we can bring them down to zero – we will continue the work to test if we can completely eliminate them.”

Professor Ieropoulos said his system could be beneficial to the wastewater industry because MFC systems fitted in homes could result in wastewater being cleaner when it reaches the sewerage system.

He said: “Water companies are under pressure to improve treatment and produce cleaner and cleaner water at the end of the process. This means costs are rising, energy consumption levels are high and powerful chemicals are being used.”

Learn more: Technology which makes electricity from urine also kills pathogens, researchers find

 

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Scientists develop a new microbial fuel cell that requires no external energy source

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New fuel cell system is the first of its kind

A team of scientists from the Iowa State University have, for the first time, developed a microbial fuel cell that is not reliant on external power to operate. The new fuel cell is the first of its kind and could have major implications for the fuel cell industry as a whole in the future. The energy system currently exists in a proof-of-concept stage, but has shown significant promise in its ability to generate electricity.

Microbial fuel cells could be viable energy systems for those interested in clean energy

A microbial fuel cell uses bacteria to break down chemical bonds and produce electrons. These electrons are then used to generate electricity. With past fuel cells, a “food” supply would need to continuously be fed into the system. If the flow of food stops, the bacteria no longer produce electrons. As such, microbial fuel cells would have to rely on external power sources in order to keep functioning. This problem has made these types of fuel cells somewhat unpopular compared to their hydrogen-powered counterparts.

New fuel cell makes use of 3D paper

Learn more: Scientists develop a new microbial fuel cell that requires no external energy source

 

 

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Smaller, Cheaper Microbial Fuel Cells Turn Urine into Electricity

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A new design could help produce sustainable energy in developing countries

A new kind of fuel cell that can turn urine into electricity could revolutionize the way we produce bioenergy, particularly in developing countries. The research, published in Electrochimica Acta, describes a new design of microbial fuel cell that’s smaller, cheaper and more powerful than traditional ones.

The world’s supply of fossil fuels is being depleted, and there is increasing pressure to develop new renewable sources of energy. Bioenergy is one such source, and microbial fuel cells can produce it.

In their study, researchers from University of Bath, Queen Mary University of London and the Bristol Robotics Laboratory describe a new design of microbial fuel cell that overcomes two limitations of standard microbial fuel cells: their cost and low power production.

“Microbial fuel cells have real potential to produce renewable bioenergy out of waste matter like urine,” said Dr. Mirella Di Lorenzo, corresponding author of the study from the University of Bath. “The world produces huge volumes of urine and if we can harness the potential power of that waste using microbial fuel cells, we could revolutionize the way we make electricity.”

Microbial fuel cells are devices that use the natural processes of certain bacteria to turn organic matter into electricity. There are other ways of producing bioenergy, including anaerobic digestion, fermentation and gasification. But microbial fuel cells have the advantage of working at room temperature and pressure. They’re efficient, relatively cheap to run and produce less waste than the other methods.

There are, however, some limitations. Microbial fuel cells can be quite expensive to manufacture. The electrodes are usually made of cost-effective materials, but the cathode often contains platinum to speed up the reactions that create the electricity. Also, microbial fuel cells tend to produce less power than the other methods of bioenergy production.

The new miniature microbial fuel cell uses no expensive materials for the cathode; instead it’s made of carbon cloth and titanium wire. To speed up the reaction and create more power, it uses a catalyst that’s made of glucose and ovalbumin, a protein found in egg white. These are typical constituents of food waste.

“We aim to test and prove the use of carbon catalysts derived from various food wastes as a renewable and low-cost alternative to platinum at the cathode,” said corresponding author Dr. Mirella Di Lorenzo from the University of Bath.

They then tweaked the design to see what would produce more power. Doubling the length of the electrodes, from 4mm to 8mm, increased the power output tenfold. By stacking up three of the miniature microbial fuel cells, the researchers were able to increase the power tenfold compared to the output of individual cells.

“Microbial fuel cells could be a great source of energy in developing countries, particularly in impoverished and rural areas,” said Jon Chouler, lead author of the study from the University of Bath. “Our new design is cheaper and more powerful than traditional models. Devices like this that can produce electricity from urine could make a real difference by producing sustainable energy from waste.”

“We have shown that the cell design has an incidence on performance and we want to further investigate the relevance of electrode surface area to volume ratio on performance. Our aim is to be able to effectively miniaturize the MFC and scale-up power production by generating compact batteries of multiple miniature units,” added Dr. Di Lorenzo.

Learn more: Smaller, Cheaper Microbial Fuel Cells Turn Urine into Electricity

 

 

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‘Pee-power’ to light camps in disaster zones

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A toilet, conveniently situated near the Student Union Bar at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol), is proving pee can generate electricity.

The prototype urinal is the result of a partnership between researchers at UWE Bristol and Oxfam. It is hoped the pee-power technology will light cubicles in refugee camps, which are often dark and dangerous places particularly for women.

Students and staff are being asked to use the urinal to donate pee to fuel microbial fuel cell (MFC) stacks that generate electricity to power indoor lighting.

The research team is led by Professor Ioannis Ieropoulos, Director of the Bristol BioEnergy Centre located in the Bristol Robotics Laboratory at UWE Bristol.

Professor Ieropoulos says, “We have already proved that this way of generating electricity works. Work by the Bristol BioEnergy Centre hit the headlines in 2013 when the team demonstrated that electricity generated by microbial fuel cell stacks could power a mobile phone. This exciting project with Oxfam could have a huge impact in refugee camps.

“The microbial fuel cells work by employing live microbes which feed on urine (fuel) for their own growth and maintenance. The MFC is in effect a system which taps a portion of that biochemical energy used for microbial growth, and converts that directly into electricity – what we are calling urine-tricity or pee power. This technology is about as green as it gets, as we do not need to utilise fossil fuels and we are effectively using a waste product that will be in plentiful supply.”

The urinal on the University campus resembles toilets used in refugee camps by Oxfam to make the trial as realistic as possible. The technology that converts the urine into power sits underneath the urinal and can be viewed through a clear screen.

Andy Bastable, Head of Water and Sanitation at Oxfam, says, “Oxfam is an expert at providing sanitation in disaster zones, and it is always a challenge to light inaccessible areas far from a power supply. This technology is a huge step forward. Living in a refugee camp is hard enough without the added threat of being assaulted in dark places at night. The potential of this invention is huge.”

Read more: ‘Pee-power’ to light camps in disaster zones

 

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Turning waste into power with bacteria — and loofahs

washcloth bathsponge and loofah

different colored washcloths face cloths loofah and bathsponge

Loofahs, best known for their use in exfoliating skin to soft, radiant perfection, have emerged as a new potential tool to advance sustainability efforts on two fronts at the same time: energy and waste.

The study describes the pairing of loofahs with bacteria to create a power-generating microbial fuel cell (MFC) and appears in the ACS journal Environmental Science & Technology.

Shungui Zhou and colleagues note that MFCs, which harness the ability of some bacteria to convert waste into electric power, could help address both the world’s growing waste problem and its need for clean power. Current MFC devices can be expensive and complicated to make. In addition, the holes, or pores, in the cells’ electrodes are often too small for bacteria to spread out in. Recently, researchers have turned to plant materials as a low-cost alternative, but pore size has still been an issue. Loofahs, which come from the fully ripened fruit of loofah plants, are commonly used as bathing sponges. They have very large pores, yet are still inexpensive. That’s why Zhou’s team decided to investigate their potential use in MFCs.

When the scientists put nitrogen-enriched carbon nanoparticles on loofahs and loaded them with bacteria, the resulting MFC performed better than traditional MFCs. “This study introduces a promising method for the fabrication of high-performance anodes from low-cost, sustainable natural materials,” the researchers state.

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