All of us use water and in the process, a lot of it goes to waste. Whether it goes down drains, sewers or toilets, much of it ends up at a wastewater treatment plant where it undergoes rigorous cleaning before it flows back to the environment. The process takes time, money and a lot of energy.
What if that wastewater could be turned into energy? It almost sounds too good to be true, but environmental engineer Bruce Logan is working on ways to make it happen.
"Right now, we use 5 percent of our electricity to run our water infrastructure," says Logan. "We can literally pour wastewater into this fuel cell and take the energy in the wastewater and make electricity. We're using bacteria to actually turn any organic matter and some inorganic matter directly into electricity. The bacteria do it themselves. That's how we're running this fan," he says with a smile and points to a small spinning fan attached to a fuel cell.
Most treatment plants already use bacteria to break down the organic waste in the water. With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Logan and his team at Penn State University are taking the idea a step further. They are developing microbial fuel cells to channel the bacteria's hard work into energy. Here's how it works: The bacteria in the wastewater eat the organic waste, releasing electrons as a byproduct. Those electrons collect on carbon bristles in the fuel cell, eventually flowing through a circuit that can power a small fan or light bulb.
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