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With the right help sewage can make clean new energy

Image of epi-fluorescent microscopy view of bacteria adhesion (biofilm) on conductive carbon anode electrode


The Microbial Energy Group at the Environmental Change Institute, NUI Galway, are right now researching how different bacteria produce electricity as they hungrily chomp on the organic material in waste.

Microbial fuel cells are bio-electrochemical devices in which microorganisms (bacteria) convert organic substances in wastewater into electricity in a single step in an anaerobic (without oxygen) environment. The biotechnological applications of this natural process are to meet future global energy demand and also harnessing of green energy resources which is vital for steering the global energy supplies towards a sustainable path.

Only recently, however, have scientists discovered that they could tap into this energy in a practical manner and use it as an alternative energy source. Today, microbial fuel cells (MFCs) are being explored primarily as a power source for remote sensors and for wastewater treatment, in which the bacteria that break down sewage generate sufficient electricity to run the treatment plant. But the role that the fuel cells could eventually play will depend on whether certain limitations can be overcome.

Right now exploiting common wastewater as a fuel source to produce electricity uses MFC technology, and it of interest to exploit other types of waste too.
Moreover there is a need for alternative waste management techniques to better utilize the waste and to minimize its adverse environmental impact. Microbial fuel cells take advantage of the long-known fact that some microbes directly produce electricity when they break down organic matter present in wastes.

Research on the innovative and novel MFC technology is in its infancy, and so far steps have been made toward commercialising the technology but the research is far from complete. To this end, the Microbial Bioenergy Group, based in the Environmental Change Institute at NUI Galway, are currently undertaking fundamental chemical, microbiological and engineering studies necessary to further develop this technology, thus providing a knowledge base which will lead to future commercial opportunities in development of these new technologies in Ireland.

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