This approach used by the OSU researchers can be broken down into following steps:
OSU’s new microbial fuel cell technology uses reduced anode-cathode spacing, evolved microbes and new separator materials to improve the amount of energy that it can harvest from the organic mater. These improvements allow the fuel cell to produce electricity more efficiently than with anaerobic digestors (which is essentially a process of recovering methane gas from decomposing waste) – and actually treats the wastewater more effectively (source).
If you've been paying attention to the political back and forth of the presidential campaign this last week (and props to you if you haven't), we've been hearing the candidates talk about energy issues. Whatever your politics are, everyone agrees that increasing our energy source capacity is needed. Energy costs are a significant part of wastewater treatment plants budgets, and overall wastewater treatment accounts for 3% of electrical energy consumed in the United States (source). When you take these facts into account, the research coming out of Oregon State University this week becomes very exciting. Researchers have developed a microbial fuel cell that produces anywhere between 10-100 times more electrictricty per volume (source). The new technology "could eventually change the way that wastewater is treated all over the world, replacing the widely used "activated sludge" process that has been in use for almost a century" (source). Melissa Lott breaks it down the basic process for us below.
While these advances may not be the single silver bullet to our future energy problems, they certainly provide a part of the solution. Perhaps our future will be filled with many different puzzle pieces of energy sources - fossil fuels, nuclear, wind, solar, hydropower, and yes, wastewater.