Researchers at Penn State University in State College say they have harnessed the power of some of nature’s smallest workers to create batteries.
Professor Bruce Logan and his colleagues use bacteria to produce electricity. The batteries are called microbial fuel cells.
Over the past decade, the technology slowly has been developing in engineering labs nationwide. This technology uses bacteria to extract energy from organic matter and release it as electrons.
“It works like bacteria in our bodies,” said Logan. “Except, in humans, the electrons are sent to oxygen. In a microbial fuel cell, the bacteria are denied that easy conversion. They are forced to make electrodes.”
The electrodes flow through the circuitry of the fuel cell, and that is electricity.
At Penn State, Logan is involved in an ongoing project to collect bacteria from the campus’s wastewater treatment plant to run through the fuel cells.
Logan’s research has estimated that 5 percent of the nation’s electrical demand goes to power wastewater treatment plants. If Logan’s project goes through, not only will the bacteria in the wastewater be breaking down the organic matter, it will be powering the rest of the plant — things like pumps, aerators and lights.
Someday, Logan said, the 2.6 million gallons of wastewater that flows each day through the Penn State plant, could produce enough electricity to power 84 nearby homes.
The recent challenge for Logan is finding the most cost effective systems for the microbial fuel cells.
“We need to scale them up,” said Logan. “This is an emerging technology, and we need to learn how to deal with the electricity that is produced.”
The fuel cells can only put out about half a volt, said Logan. In order to increase the voltage in a fuel-efficient way, there needs to be more research.
“Right now, if we put more batteries together to get a higher voltage, they short each other out.”
Logan is hoping for interest outside of the academic world. Within the electrical industry, there are few sources for alternative energy funding. Logan’s website lists various grants that he has been awarded for his microbial fuel cell research.