IIT Jodhpur Researchers Use Plants To Generate Electricity From Wastewater In Microbial Fuel Cells

“A Microbial Fuel Cell (MFC) is a device that uses microbes to convert organic matter in wastewater directly into electrical energy,” explained Dr Chhabra.

Biofuel Research Group of IIT Jodhpur

Researchers from the Environmental Biotechnology Lab at Indian Institute of Technology Jodhpur led by Dr Meenu Chhabra, Associate Professor, Department of Bioscience & Bioengineering, IIT Jodhpur, have demonstrated for the first time that plant-based microbial fuel cells can generate power profitably from wastewater compared to algae-based systems. The results of their work, sponsored by the Department of Science and Technology, Govt. of India, through the INSPIRE PhD fellowship scheme, has been recently published in the journal,  Bioresource Technology. The paper has been co-authored by Arti Sharma, Sanjana Gajbhiye, Sweta Chauhan, and Dr Chhabra.

Wastewater treatment is an important activity in any civilized society, and the increasing generation of large amounts of domestic wastewater has necessitated the development of newer treatment methods that are energy efficient and scalable.  Organic waste materials have a lot of latent energy  –   domestic waste contains nine times more energy than the treatment consumes – there has been interest all over the world to generate energy from waste during the process of waste treatment. 

While the idea of using microbes to produce electricity was proposed as early as 1911 by Michael Potter, a professor of botany at the University of Durham, its use in fuel cells is a recent development and promises to solve two separate problems – the treatment of waste and energy generation. In MFCs, live microbes act on the waste organic matter to release the electrons that are extracted with an external load, thereby generating power.

Photosynthetic MFCs uses algae or plant to generate oxygen from waste at the cathode of the fuel cell. Algae-based systems have been extensively studied in recent years because algae grow faster and easily but are sensitive to cultivation conditions. Plant systems are slower to build and have lower efficiencies than algae-based MFCs but are more robust.  

The IIT Jodhpur team plans to explore microbial fuel cells further and study such aspects as microbial communities analysis, long-term operation, rhizosphere characterization, and design optimization, in order to realise the potential of MFCs in wastewater treatment and alternative power generation.

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