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OSU's Microbial Fuel Cell Could Make Waste Treatment an Energy Source 70

An anonymous reader writes "A team of engineers from Oregon State University has developed a breakthrough microbial fuel cell that is capable of generating 10 to 50 times more electricity from waste than other MFCs. The team hopes that their innovation will enable waste treatment plants to not only power themselves, but also sell excess electricity back to the grid. 'If this technology works on a commercial-scale the way we believe it will, the treatment of wastewater could be a huge energy producer, not a huge energy cost,' said associate professor Hong Liu. 'This could have an impact around the world, save a great deal of money, provide better water treatment and promote energy sustainability.'"
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OSU's Microbial Fuel Cell Could Make Waste Treatment an Energy Source

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  • by SternisheFan ( 2529412 ) on Saturday August 25, 2012 @03:51AM (#41120671)
    This would greatly help out the enviornment worldwide by making waste treatment profitable, while also removing the tax burden. Here in Nassau County, N.Y., the waste treatment plants have been mis-managed for seemingly forever. The plants break down regularly causing untreated waste to be released into the already fragile eco-system. The once thriving clamming industry has been reduced to.near non-existant here on Long Island. The blame lies squarely on the untreated sewage released into the bays.
    • by Cenan ( 1892902 ) on Saturday August 25, 2012 @04:02AM (#41120717)

      Yeah I'm not sure we actually want "profitable" slabbed on something as important as waste treatment. That word is commonly followed by words like "margin" and leads to all sorts of nasty shortcuts that are just barely inside the often arbitrary law requirements.

      • If waste treatment plants are privately owned then they're already being run for profit and are having 'margins' trimmed to the extent they can inside the law. If waste treatment plants are publicly owned then you don't suddenly need to privatize them if they start making energy and they won't be run for profit. It's just one more part of existing infrastructure, I don't see how it could suddenly lead to waste leaking everywhere.
        • by Cenan ( 1892902 )

          Currently waste treatment does not turn a profit. Not without the help of government funding at least, this information can be read indirectly from the article:

          “If this technology works on a commercial scale the way we believe it will, the treatment of wastewater could be a huge energy producer, not a huge energy cost,” said Hong Liu

          When a sector formerly under government control is suddenly able to turn a profit, what will happen?
          A: the government pockets the difference
          B: the sector is privatized and the elected politician earns another period in his chair by cutting tax that was previously used to fund the plant.
          C: nothing cause profiteering gluttons already have all the means

          • Ideally, option A. It's like having extra tax money to spend on nice things that the idiots who don't realize tax = services won't complain about!
          • D. The industry is turned into a Public Utility, which is moderately regulated and expected to return a handsome if conservative long-term dividend. see also, Electric Company.
          • by SpzToid ( 869795 ) on Saturday August 25, 2012 @08:37AM (#41121533)

            The city of Amsterdam imports trash (for profit) from all over the place to generate electricity. Amsterdam is enlarging its harbor infrastructure to increase the amount of trash barges that are hoped to arrive from other countries as those countries seek to reduce waste & emmissions. Currently the CO2 from the trucks arriving at the facility is considered more wasteful than future barges.

            The most-coveted data center locations surround this facility btw.

            http://www.aebamsterdam.com/en/home [aebamsterdam.com]

            • by Cenan ( 1892902 )

              Well that pretty much proves the point doesn't it? AEB is importing trash at the expense of CO2, how come these plants aren't being constructed where the waste is generated?
              Seems to me that would be better for the environment, but not so much for the coffers of AEB.

              The actual technology behind the plant looks at first glance pretty interesting, but the plant burns the fuel, creating what in the process? Less CO2 than their competitors? None? The site only states that they've gotten some kind of recognition

              • by SpzToid ( 869795 )

                how come these plants aren't being constructed where the waste is generated?

                This is exactly what the city of Amsterdam decided to do for themselves, to the extent they can now look to import garbage at a profit. Let me tell you no one, I mean no one seriously overbuilds their infrastructure like the Dutch. I swear, they are an advanced society America could learn from. Not just in this example, but their health care too, (must we need to 'invent' everything ourselves? Can't America look to, and learn from o

              • by SpzToid ( 869795 )

                Besides, the article above deals with sewage, which doesn't seem to be on order by AEB anywhere.

                According this this article, the Amsterdam AEB facility was upgraded in 2006 to process raw sewage into energy also. "The two [new] installations will take advantage of several positive interactions, including utilization of the biogas produced from sewage sludge digestion."

                http://arizonaenergy.org/Analysis/MakingSense/waste_incineration_and_the_commu.htm [arizonaenergy.org]

          • by Anonymous Coward

            I'm not sure you understood the article. Privately owned waste treatment facilities are already run to turn a profit, just like a typical coffee shop. Whether or not they *use* more energy than they produce has absolutely nothing to do with that. On the other hand, enabling waste treatment facilities to double as power-generation facilities will help ease the coming energy crunch as old power plants are EOL'd faster than new ones are commissioned.

      • by fufufang ( 2603203 ) on Saturday August 25, 2012 @05:19AM (#41120965)

        Yeah I'm not sure we actually want "profitable" slabbed on something as important as waste treatment. That word is commonly followed by words like "margin" and leads to all sorts of nasty shortcuts that are just barely inside the often arbitrary law requirements.

        In developing countries such as China, economic development has higher priority over the environment. If protecting the environment is profitable, private businesses would do it. So I would say this is a step forward helping countries like China.

        • by Cenan ( 1892902 )

          Very true, profit brings attention and that could very well be a good thing for developing nations like China. For the nations where waste treatment is already mandated and a priority I'm not so sure though. I mean, the is a reason we even have buzzwords like "green energy" and "sustainable growth", and it's not because of the altruistic motives of private enterprises.

        • So I would say this is a step forward helping countries like China.

          Please! Won't someone help this man, so burdened and weighed down by the massive stacks of cash in his pockets!

      • While I'm sure that flipping a current electrical drain(pumps, valves and such) into a electrical source will make waste treatment/disposal cheaper, I'm not sure it'd truly make it profitable.

        Right now the cost sheet might be something like: Electricity $A, Manpower $B, Chemicals $C, Maintenance $D, etc... You might have a few positives - fertilizer products, chemical/mineral recovery, something, but it's insignificant.

        If B+C+D is greater than our new -A, and it likely is, then waste disposal is still neg

        • by AHuxley ( 892839 )
          Also consider the feed in rate offered by any of the local grid operators.
          They may sell for 0.30 to consumers, offer 0.2 or 0.5 for solar with some enduser or gov feed in tariff.
          If your a massive user you may get more creative options.
          Any other provider looking to grid connect and "sell" energy may get 0.07.... some wholesale rate with a ongoing line rental fee :)
          • Those are some interesting rates quoted...

            I currently pay ~ $.21 per kwh, one of the highest rates in the nation. Back in the states $.12 is closer for residential customers, commercial and industrial users tend to be even lower. I figure that 'Sewage treatment plant' is probably pretty steady and counts as an industrial user; it might be paying closer to $.07 a kwh, they get some massive discounts.

            So the first thing this system would do is reduce their bill - allowing them to draw less power. If it's ef

      • by Toonol ( 1057698 )

        Doing something good is only a virtue when it entails suffering, right? If it benefits you, it's obviously a sin.

        What a medieval way of thinking.
    • There is a company who has engineered a form of algae that can produce diesel fuel http://www.jouleunlimited.com/ [jouleunlimited.com]. These technologies need investment and need to come to fruition quickly.
    • by fm6 ( 162816 )

      If your waste treatment plants are mismanaged and polluting now, giving them the ability to generate electricity isn't likely to change that.

  • We could use an already established (and probably cheaper) technology - biogas generators to run gas turbines.
    • "biogas generators"? Where would you get the fuel source? Sounds like you're full of hot air. Look, although bean burritos are pretty cheap, I'm not too sure about shoving a jet engine up my arse...

      • by lxs ( 131946 )

        If only we had access to millions of cows producing dung... Now where would you find those? It's not like there are people actually growing cows on farms.

    • Re:Or ... (Score:5, Informative)

      by Cenan ( 1892902 ) on Saturday August 25, 2012 @04:18AM (#41120805)

      From TFA:

      The system also works better than an alternative approach to creating electricity from wastewater, based on anaerobic digestion that produces methane. It treats the wastewater more effectively, and doesn’t have any of the environmental drawbacks of that technology, such as production of unwanted hydrogen sulfide or possible release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

    • by dbIII ( 701233 )
      That sort of thing is being done in a lot of places (a waste treatment plant near me since the 1970s), however I think the article is about getting more energy than that.
  • by riverat1 ( 1048260 ) on Saturday August 25, 2012 @05:17AM (#41120955)

    Proud of my school!

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Pardon my cynicism/skepticism but I've seen so many of these 'revolutionary' articles over the years that it feels almost trite. So many times have there been breakthrough developments in technology and science that should completely transformed how the world and economy works, yet we never see this affect us on a daily level. I realize that these things take time to implement, but I feel like this will just be one of those things that you read about once, and never hear of again. Does anyone else share my

    • This will take a long time, even if it gets the right support over a long period of time (i.e. across several US presidencies).

      First it has to be scaled up from laboratory-scale to municipal scale, then you have to find a municipality that's already due to build a new treatment plant. The article says this is intended to replace not only the anaerobic digester process and biogas turbines, but also the nearly ubiquitous activated sludge process, it's not going to be so well suited to retrofit as it is to

    • Those silly gasoline engines will never replace horses. I mean look how slow they are, and heaven knows there there's not enough oil in the world to power enough of them. Just too many problems to be practical.....
  • by farnsaw ( 252018 ) on Saturday August 25, 2012 @07:35AM (#41121349) Homepage
    What do you want to bet that we will STILL be charged a sewage fee?
  • Bad enough that they're sending out treated wastewater for drinking, now we're going to have sewer electricity?
    • by dywolf ( 2673597 )

      Imagine this: the Mississippi River drains the watersheds of ~80% of the country. Each of those cities and towns upstream gets their water from, and returns their treated waste water to, that water system.

      Now imagine you live in New Orleans or some such, near the mouth of the river. And your water supply also is fed off the river....you're drinking the treated waste water of everyone of those people further upstream, roughly 50% (guesstimate) of the nations population.

      Fun huh?

      • There's a reason I don't drink water in Nawlins. And, Bill Fields to the contrary, it has nothing to do with fish.
      • by SpzToid ( 869795 )

        "As ‘Yuck Factor’ Subsides, Treated Wastewater Flows From Taps" -NY Times

        When/if the water is treated sufficiently, there is not a problem. Orange County, California does this every single day for years now, and they produce a million gallons of drinking water a day. Where did you get your geek card from? This ain't exactly rocket science in 2012, and it is covered in the mainstream media too. We all must learn to use our precious resources more efficiently. Forget about trips to Mars already, (

        • by dywolf ( 2673597 )

          It's a joke man. Part of my engineering learning covered water/wastewater treatment. I didnt focus on it, but i took the required courses. It's just fun to creep people out though cause most people don't stop to think about it.

  • So that I can run it off my septic tank. Hopefully effective enough to be a worthwhile augment to my solar panel and windmill.

    • Nice thought. But it's 2 kW / cubic meter - of active cell. If you only have a house and family I'd guess you probably don't have enough sewage to feed the bugs to power more than a small lamp.

      If you have a nontrivial farm it might be another matter.

  • Get some efficiency numbers that cover everything and we'll talk.

    • As it repurposes garbage or sewage or whatever, if it at least profits a little it's worth it. Efficiency really matters when you're constructing a process out of whole cloth.

      Of more concern to me is the CO2 rate per unit of electricity. If it's as bad as coal or worse, I don't know if robbing Peter to pay Paul is worth it. Best to stick with cheap, much lower emission natural gas.

    • by spauldo ( 118058 )

      Good point.

      After we get those solar collectors built, we can stop shitting altogether! We won't need to produce sewage anymore.

  • by Dr.Dubious DDQ ( 11968 ) on Saturday August 25, 2012 @09:52AM (#41121951) Homepage

    Why do these things never have a link to a peer-reviewed paper that I can read to see what they're actually doing?

  • For years now, from time to time we're informed of energy breakthroughs. Similar to this item, there are bacteria used for converting cellulose to glucose and other breakthroughs. How come we never hear of these getting to production? Is it just over optimism of the original press release, or is it the energy companies conspiracy theories?
    • by spauldo ( 118058 )

      There's a big difference between something working in the lab and commercial production.

      A company has to pick it up and develop it. It's a long shot because this sort of research often doesn't pay off.

      That's one of the reasons the government gives grants to companies developing alternative energy - it softens the impact of the research cost and allows the companies to survive long enough to either start their own production or license their patents to the larger energy companies.

  • If this type of things interests you, join http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/MicrobialFuelCells/

  • This article is short on details. There have been many advances in MFCs over the years, why is this one such a big deal? So far, MFCs have not produced electricity on such a large scale as to be competitive with other energy producers. What is more interesting is that a moderate amount of electricity fed into the MFC can accelerate microbial breakdown of waste. This is far more important, in my opinion, because there are far better options of producing electricity but less for breaking down organic waste.


  • Joules unlimited is converting waste into diesel or ethanol via cyanobacteria. They have a prototype going in New Mexico and are gearing up for production plants. This will enable what is normally a cost center (waste treatment) to be turned into fuel that can be sold at current market values. What is interesting is that they claim that they can produce diesel at equivalence of $30/bl. With oil currently selling at 3.5x that, the difference is PURE profit.
    • I'm still hoping for a similar process for producing butanol - apparently butanol can be burned in a normal gasoline-burning engine with no modifications, and with very nearly the same efficiency (so, no "flex-fuel" modifications needed, nor even switching to Diesel engines, and you supposedly get about the same mileage as regular gasoline).

      Last time I looked (admittedly, this was about half a decade ago) butanol was wholesaling for about $8/gallon, so not yet competitive with gasoline, but I'm guessing th

      • Several groups are working on that. In fact, one of them is here in Colorado. But, I am not certain that they will get the prices down low. IIRC, they are using Algae, which is just not efficient.

        Joule's real strength is that they are using mostly cyanobacteria. As such, it can be fed crap, and still makes use of the sun. What I love about it is that it gives us diesel or ethanol as a waste product. Ethanol is a mistake since it is harder to pull from water. But the diesel will simply float to the surface
  • I'd like to see a study of the impact of ever-increasing amounts of perscription drugs showing up in waste water, and how damaging they are to the treatment process (assuming they're not just ignored and passed along). I suspect they would also severely impact any biological treatment systems as well.

I've finally learned what "upward compatible" means. It means we get to keep all our old mistakes. -- Dennie van Tassel