The US Army is currently testing a microbial fuel cell that could turn 2,250 litres of sewage into clean water and generate enough electricity to power itself and even have an excess to be stored for future use. This would help reduce large shipments of fuel and water supplies to isolated Army bases in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Army is working alongside a Boston company called Cambrian Innovation, which has developed the BioVolt- electrically active microbes that are used as catalysts to treat wastewater and generate electricity. Microbial fuel cells have long been touted as the way forward. The idea is that the biochemistry involved in metabolising the contaminants can yield electricity to help power the process. But fuel cells of this kind have been very difficult to scale up outside the lab.
BioVolt uses strains of Geobacter and another microbe called Shewanella oneidensis to process the sludge. Its proprietary mix of organisms has one key advantage – the bacteria liberate some electrons as they respire, effectively turning the whole set-up into a battery. This has the added benefit of slowing bacterial growth, so that at the end of the process you have electricity and no microbe cake.
Microbial fuel cells offer wider benefits
While this is an exciting innovation for the Army’s current situation in those countries, the application will also prove to be highly beneficial for farming communities around the world where communal water treatment could produce water for irrigation and even provide sustainable power. Since supplies of fresh water in underground aquifers are being rapidly depleted, the application is likely to be applauded by many industries that need water to function.
From an energy conservation point of view, conventional treatment plants use 1.5kWh for every kilogram of pollutants removed. It therefore goes without saying that the impact of microbes, combined with wind and solar generation will make it possible for rural communities to function effectively off-grid.
Cambrian Innovation is not the only company researching the potential of active microbes. A researcher at the J. Craig Venter Institute is testing microbial fuel cells at a farm in Escondido to process 630 litres of pig waste daily. The researcher, Orianna Bretschger, hopes to launch a larger pilot system in Tijuana, Mexico later this year and be on track to commercialization in 3 to 5 years. Her system goes a step beyond BioVolt and traditional plants in that it can rid water of pharmaceuticals – synthetic oestrogens, for example. Bretschger is now looking at ways to add pain relief drugs to the list.
Cambrian CEO Matt Silver sees a future in which different kinds of microbial fuel cells treat different kinds of waste, perhaps recovering useful by-products. Another of the firm’s designs, EcoVolt, generates methane as it cleans up waste water produced by a Californian brewery. It has also cut the brewery’s energy use by 15% and its water use by 40%.
Cambrian hopes BioVolt will scale up to processing more than 20,000 litres per day. Microbial fuel cells, Silver thinks, will do for renewable water what solar and wind did for renewable energy.
Microbial fuel cell market growth
The concept of microbial fuel cells producing electricity was first devised in the early twentieth century and it is increasingly considered to be one of the most sustainable processes for energy creation as compared to conventional water treatment processes.
According to the new Market Research Report "Microbial Fuel Cell Market, By Industry (Agriculture, Healthcare, Food & Beverage, Government & Municipal, and Others), By Region - Global Forecast to 2025", the global microbial fuel cell market is expected to reach US$18.6 million by 2025, at a CAGR of 9.5% from 2017 to 2025.
Despite this, the market is still in the ‘very initial stage of commercialization’. At present, with no commercialized products, the market for microbial fuel cells is yet to exist, states the report. Universities, governments, and companies are heavily investing on their R&D resources for the future commercialization of microbial fuel cells. Microbial fuel cells fulfil two very important purposes. They efficiently and economically treat wastewater, which has rich organic content, and also produce a significant amount of energy from renewable resources.
In 2017, the government and municipal segment is estimated to dominate the global microbial fuel cell market, and this trend is expected to continue during the forecast period. This is attributed to the increasing interest of government and municipal bodies in their potential, in the face of growing energy crisis and water scarcity. Government agencies and municipal bodies can use microbial fuel cells for sewage treatment, wastewater treatment, cleaning polluted lakes and rivers, and for handling other kinds of degradable organic waste.
The US currently leads in terms of adoption and development of the microbial fuel cell technology. This region is expected to account for the largest share of the global microbial fuel cell market in 2017. The US market is driven by huge incentives and R&D investments from the government as well as various enterprises. According to various universities and government agencies in the US, microbial fuel cell technology would be cost-effective as compared to other options of renewable energy production from biomass. Moreover, in the US, municipal authorities from California, New York, Ohio, and others are involved in the research and development of microbial fuel cell projects, and are working towards the technology's commercialization.
Europe accountsfor the second largest share of the overall market, whereas, the microbial fuel cell market in the Asia-Pacific region is expected to grow at the highest CAGR during the forecast period. Middle East and Africa and the Latin American regions are also expected to witness significant growth over the forecast period.
Key players of the global microbial fuel cell market include Cambrian Innovation Inc., Emefcy, MICROrganic Technologies, Inc., Microbial Robotics, ElectroChem, Prongineer, and Triqua International BV. amongst others.