From Microbes to Megawatts – Watch Out for Microbial Fuel Cells
Finding the latest discoveries and the recent developments in energy research can lead to some home runs in investing. Microbial fuel cells are in their infancy today but this emerging technology shows promise to one day be the cornerstone of highly profitable companies.
What are Microbial Fuel Cells ( MFC’s )
Most of us have heard of fuel cells. In a ‘traditional’ fuel cell, hydrogen fuel is combined with oxygen to create electricity with water as a byproduct. Microbial fuel cells are biological fuel cells that use bacteria to create electric power with a sugar such as glucose being the fuel source.
In consuming the glucose fuel source, the electrons the bacteria are disposing are sent to an electrode which completes the biological circuit. Some bacteria range from 60 to 80% efficiency, in that they can transfer up to 80% of the available electrons in a glucose molecule to an electrode. Compare this to the efficiency of a combustion engine, 30% in passenger vehicles!
The Advantages of Microbial Fuel Cells
In addition to having very high fuel efficiency, microbial fuel cells produce very little pollution. They are inexpensive compared to a full metal combustion engine and they pose no explosion hazards such as the hydrogen fuel cell systems.
Uses of Microbial Fuel Cells
Microbial fuel cells have a diverse array of potential uses.
Since a wide variety of organic fuels can be used as the fuel source in a microbial fuel cell, this allows for microbial fuel cells to be used in a wastewater treatment plant to consume waste material while producing power. MFC's in this application are really being efficient since they are both eliminating wastewater and helping with the energy demands of the treatment plant.
Microbial fuel cells also have the potential to power vehicles and have gained some interest from car makers.
MFC's may also one day power tiny devices such as pacemaker, micro sensors or a micro actuators. In these future applications, MFC's would be implanted in the body and use glucose from the blood. The advantages in using MFC's for this over batteries would be a smaller size and the fact that that MFC’s would present a renewable energy source that would not require recharging.
Development and Advancement in MFC’s
Two scientists have taken the foreground and the spotlight in what is now called microbial fuel cell research.
Derek Lovley at UMass
Derek Lovley at UMass was recently awarded a 22 million dollar research grant (yes you read that right) from the U.S. Department of Energy to continue his work on these fuel cells. Lovley aims to one use these fuel cells in the industry to power marine devices or to create self-powered wastewater treatment plants. Toyota has shown some interest in his work, and has funded some of his more recent research. Toyota sees the potential for a clean technology that is cheap and poses no explosion hazards.
Bruce Logan, Penn State
Bruce Logan’s research focuses on microbial fuel cells as well, specifically the ability of these fuel cells to treat water and produce electricity simultaneously. While companies may not yet have taken as much of a keen interest in his work the way Toyota has for Derek Lovley, Bruce Logan’s work will likely garner lots of attention in the near future.
The Future of Microbial Fuel Cells
Microbial fuel cells will be used in many successful future products. Research is leading the way. While this may be the first you have heard of microbial fuel cells, we think you will be hearing a great deal more about them in time to come.
We here at Alt Energy Stocks will certainly keep you advised of these exciting developments.
NOTE: This post was co-authored by Kartik Madiraju. Kartik is an exceptional young man who will be blogging with me here at Alt Energy Stocks. You will be hearing more from Kartik soon and I will be giving him a formal introduction, but for now, I hope you enjoyed his insights in this post.