Biodesign Institute Harnesses Wastewater-Munching Microbes to Make Hydrogen

Is wastewater our greatest underutilized resource? We’ve recently seen a startup that turns sludge into high-quality fertilizer as well as a university that produces steam, water, acetic acid, and fertilizer from wastewater. Arizona State University’ Biodesign Institute is continuing the trend with a process that uses wastewater as a feedstock to generate hydrogen for fuel cells.

Microbial fuel cells, or fuel cells that harness biochemical reactions from wastewater-munching microbes, are relatively new. But while research only began about eight years ago, the field is heating up quickly. Water and Wastewater reports:

Microbial electrochemical cells or MXCs are able to use bacterial
respiration as a means of liberating electrons, which can be used to
generate current and make clean electricity. With minor reconfiguring
such devices can also carry out electrolysis, providing a green path to
hydrogen production, reducing reliance on natural gas and other fossil
fuels, now used for most hydrogen manufacture.

The Biodesign Institute doesn’t have any plans to commercialize its process yet, but it isn’t the only organization working to advance microbial fuel cell research. The U.S. Navy, for example, recently introduced a microbial fuel cell that harnesses enough energy to power sensors. Next up: developing a microbial fuel cell that can power a robotic watercraft with a little help from ocean detritus.

Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email.