Washington: An innovative device as big as a washing machine kills two birds with one stone – it harnesses bugs to clean up municipal sewage and produces fuel.
Commercial versions of the two-in-one device, an aspect of microbial fuel cell (MFC) being developed by Orianna Bretschger’s team at the J. Craig Venter Institute, could be a boon for the developing world.
“Our prototype incorporates innovations so that it can process five times more sewage six times more efficiently at half the cost of its predecessors,” said Bretschger, according to a Venter statement.
Traditional fuel cells used on the Space Shuttles and envisioned for cars in the future “hydrogen economy,” convert fuel directly into electricity without igniting the fuel. They react or combine hydrogen and oxygen, for instance, and produce electricity and drinking water.
MFCs use organic matter, such as the material in sewage, as fuel, and microbes break down the organic matter. In the process, the bugs produce electrons, which have a negative charge and are the basic units of electricity.
“We’ve improved its energy recovery capacity from about two percent to as much as 13 percent, which is a great step in the right direction. That actually puts us in a realm where we could produce a meaningful amount of electricity if this technology is implemented commercially.
“Eventually, we could have wastewater treatment for free. That could mean availability for cleaner water in the developing world, or in southern California and other water-deficit areas of the US through the use of more wastewater recycling technologies,” she said.
Bretschger said the MFC also is quite effective in treating sewage to remove organic material, and data suggest a decrease in disease-causing microbes.
“We remove about 97 percent of the organic matter,” she said. “That sounds clean, but it is not quite clean enough to drink. In order to get to potable, you need 99.99 percent removal and more complete disinfection of the water.”
These findings were presented at 243rd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS).