From Urine to Electricity: The Wonders of Microbial Fuel Cells

Researchers have found a way to turn something as trivial and accessible as urine into a sustainable source of energy. This research was published in “ElectochimicaActa” and the researchers from the University of Bath, Queen Mary University of London and the Bristol Robotics Laboratory report the outlines of a microbial fuel cell that is more affordable, compact and with a lower power production than normal cells. This is why this discovery would be advantageous for developing countries.

The lead author of the research, Jon Chouler, said, “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.”

Bioenergy is becoming an increasingly attractive alternative to the world’s non-renewable sources of energy and with growing pressure to find new energy sources, what better to turn to biofuel and its producer: the microbial fuel cell?

Dr. Mirella Di Lorenzo, one of the authors of the research stated, “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.” This revolutionary finding may be the start of an era of sustainable energy and a future of green electricity production, while saving our non-renewable resources (i.e. natural gas, petroleum, and coal).

 

Urine electricity fuel cell
Demonstration of urinal fuel cell plant with charging station for mobile phones. University of the West of England (UWE), Bristol.

 

Microbial fuel cells use specific types of bacteria and their processes to transform organic material into electrical energy. Microbial fuels are much more beneficial than the other methods of bioenergy production because they do not require any extreme conditions (i.e. they function at room temperature and pressure); they operate inexpensively and cause minimal waste.

On the other hand, there are two major set-backs to using microbial fuel cells. They are expensive to produce and do not produce as much energy as normal bioenergy fabrication techniques. But this newly designed microbial fuel cell does not make use of such costly materials for the cathode (an integral part of the bioenergy production process, usually made of platinum), instead, the new design uses titanium wire, carbon cloth and a catalyst made from glucose and ovalbumin (both found in food). The catalyst helps fasten the production process and generate extra energy. Dr. Di Lorenzo also stated, “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”.

After the researchers found this perfect combination off cheap and sustainable materials for the fuels cells, they went on to alter the design. They found two ways to increase energy production by tenfold. One method was to double the electrode length and the other method was to stack three of the fuel cells up.

If this design proves to be marketable, it might possibly be one of the most sustainable discoveries made in decades and would allow for many of the world’s top non-renewable energy consumers to find a “greener” source of energy to rely on. This might be a major contributor to saving Planet Earth’s rapidly deteriorating environment.

0