Tuesday, November 17, 2015
Bacteria, Graphene and Nanotech Produce Usable Electricity From Wastewater
Check out the kitchen timer counting down in the gif above. There’s nothing special about it except for how it is being powered. The instrument isn’t equipped with batteries. In fact, its electricity comes from the vial behind it, where bacteria are eating organic matter in wastewater and producing electricity as a result.
It’s the first time that researchers have produced enough electricity for practical use from what are called microbial fuel cells. Scientists in China reported their breakthrough late last week in the journal Science Advances. Their work could one day help provide the huge amounts of power needed to treat wastewater, a process that currently consumes up to 5 percent of all the electricity produced in the U.S.
For a while now, researchers have been investigating the bacterium Shewanella oneidensis, which naturally targets heavy metal ions and other pollutants in wastewater as a source of energy. The bacterium reduces these materials as a way to power its own metabolism, meanwhile converting them into less harmful derivatives. Engineers have figured out how to tap S. oneidensis’s to start harvesting the current for human use, but so far they haven’t been able to get enough out of the reaction because of technological limitations to do anything useful.
Shenlong Zhao and colleagues focused their work not on the bacterium, but on the material part of the battery that collects the electrons the microbe harvests. They worked out a better electrode made of a three-dimensional graphene aerogel decorated with platinum nanoparticles. The aerogel’s complex pores allows the microbe to colonize throughout it, maximizing the density of cells. The platinum nanoparticles, meanwhile, improve the material’s conductivity while also creating an environment more amenable to the organism’s survival.
The power output is enough for two of the vial-sized microbial fuel cells to power the kitchen timer. Meanwhile, tests with the fuel cells running on wastewater retrieved from a Beijing treatment plant indicated that real-world municipal wastewater could be used to produce electricity. Zhao’s team are now setting their sights on scaling up their preliminary work into larger applications.
Top gif: Digital photo of microbial fuel cells driving a timer. The two single biofuel cells have been assembled in series and successfully run a timer, strongly exemplifying that the graphene aerogel/platinum nanoparticle anode enables the superior performance and the actual application potential. Video and caption courtesy of Zhao et al./Science Advances.