Biological Fuel cells and Microbial Electolysis

Microbial Fuel Cells (MFC) and Microbial Electrolysis (ME) use living microorganisms as catalysts to directly generate electrical power from the considerable chemical energy available in biomass, wastes and effluents and this power may be used externally as a power source as MFC and as hydrogen in ME.

As a result of the last five years’ work, SERC has developed a novel scalable MFC and ME system and published 19 international journal papers on its development in high impact journals

Although the power densities of these systems have greatly increased in the last decade, the power has been highly dependent on the system scale.

Our team has focused on improving power performance through novel scalable designs of MFC and ME systems. The systems are able to convert waste streams, crops and/or other co-products, directly into electricity, hydrogen, or other materials; and can simultaneously treat waste streams. Hence, their industrial applicability lies primarily in making use of such low grade energy such as in wastewaters and consequently, large volumetric throughput is an important target.

MFC research at the University of South Wales has been funded primarily through the RCUK SUPERGEN Biological Fuel Cells. Led by Oxford University and University of Surrey, together with the Universities of South Wales, Glasgow, Newcastle, UWE, UCL and UEA.

The work on ME has been funded under the separate RCUK SUPGERGEN SHEC II consortium project Further funding has been secured from the new EPSRC SUPERGEN H2FC Hub to investigate enhanced generation of hydrogen by integration other biological hydrogen processes with microbial electrochemical processes.

Major research outputs and impacts

Follow-on funding was secured as part RCUK SUPERGEN Biological Fuel Cell Consortium Project, from April 2010, in which USW continued as lead for the Microbial Fuel cell Theme.

As a result of the last five years’ work, USW has developed novel scalable MFC and ME system and published 19 international journal papers on its development in high impact journals e.g. Journal of Energy, Environment and Science.

Over this period the SERC team at USW has increased the power density in their novel systems from 6.1 to 63 Wm-3, a 10 fold increase. Also these systems can operated at 15oC, saving significant operational energy costs.

Industrial collaborations

An industrial feasibility study has been conducted funded by A4B, during which 15 companies from a number of different sectors were engaged. A study was also conducted to ascertain the efficacy of our first generation tubular MFC system to remove pollution in energy efficient way, reducing costs of discharge of waste-waters to sewer. Several funding applications with support from various companies across Europe have been made as a result. For example a collaborative investigation with Mast Carbon in which the company provide specialist carbons for use in an MFC, has been conducted and another is underway.

USW have filed two patents to protect SERC novel developments in this rapidly growing area of low carbon research, (US2010203361 (A1) 2010-08-12, US2010203361 (A1) 2010-08-12).