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Home > Feature Articles > Alternative Energy Solutions > Fuels & Renewable Energy

Microbial Fuel Cells - High School Science Curriculum

Waste water makes microbial fuel cell energy

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The combination of beer, wastewater, microbes, fuel cells, high school students and teachers sounds like a witches' brew for an old-fashioned, illicit '60s beach party.

Instead, these are the components that comprise the heart and soul of a new high school science curriculum being developed by researchers at Washington University in St. Louis and a couple of St. Louis area high school teachers.

Lars Angenent, Ph.D., assistant professor of energy, environmental & chemical engineering, has received a $400,000 Career grant from the National Science Foundation to develop microbial fuel cell (MFC) kits and an accompanying booklet of physics, chemistry and biology lessons that pertain to the cell. In addition, Angenent will make the kits available to high school science teachers everywhere as an exciting, visual, hands-on way to teach science. As part of the grant, he will be working with Victoria L. May, assistant dean for science outreach in Arts & Sciences and director of the university's Science Outreach program.

Microbial Fuel Cells

Angenent said that MFC technology offers advantages for converting waste to energy because the microbial fuel cells can operate using the dilute organic waste streams typical of domestic wastewater treatment plants and at low temperatures.

Angenent uses a carbon-based fiber on which biofilm grows, allowing him to connect two electrodes in the anode and cathode chambers with a conductive wire.

In a hydrogen fuel cell, a membrane separates the anode and cathode chambers. When hydrogen meets the anode electrode, it splits into protons and electrons, sending protons across the membrane to the cathode chamber and sending electrons over the wire between electrodes to create a current.

Oxygen is added to the cathode chamber, and on the electrode there is a reaction of electron proton and oxygen to form water. Catalysts, such as platinum, are needed on both electrodes to promote the reactions.

"We are doing basically the same thing as is done in a hydrogen fuel cell with our microbial fuel cell," Angenent said. "We've found that the bacteria on the anode electrode can act as the catalyst instead of platinum."

Lars Angenent, Ph.D., assistant professor of energy, environmental and chemical engineering, has received a $400,000 Career grant from the National Science Foundation to develop microbial fuel cell, MFC, kits and an accompanying booklet of physics, chemistry and biology lessons that pertain to the cell. In addition, Angenent will make the kits available to high school science teachers everywhere as an exciting, visual, hands-on way to teach science.

VIDEO: Video by Lars Angenent,

Web site: Microbial Fuel Cells turn on the Juice - WUSTL



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