Microbes Future for Biodiesel, Hydrogen Cells

John Davis

Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) looks to turn microbes into the next big thing for biodiesel and hydrogen fuel cells. This story from MIT says scientists at the school are looking to capture energy that might be flushed away in wastewater.

buie1“Even if you could get only a fraction of that back, you could offset the amount of energy it takes to process the wastewater, and potentially sell some back to grid,” says Cullen Buie, who heads up MIT’s Laboratory for Energy and Microsystems Innovation (LEMI). “We’re working on a way to use microbial fuel cells to harvest some of the energy that is currently being flushed down the toilet.”

Buie’s work on microbial fuel cells is just one effort of many at LEMI, where projects draw upon fields including microfluidics, electrokinetics, electrochemistry, and microscale surface engineering. In addition to microbial fuel cells, potential applications include biodiesel harvesting, cell sorting for genetic research, ship-hull protection, and perhaps Buie’s biggest breakthrough to date: a low-cost, hydrogen bromine flow battery that doesn’t require a membrane.

Buie founded LEMI when he arrived at MIT in 2010. “The lab encompasses all the things that interest me, including alternative energy,” says Buie, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering. “A lot of our applications are dependent on microscale manipulation or principles of microfluidics. We also look at electric fields in fluid flow in order to discriminate, or sort cells, based on physical properties.”

The idea behind the process is that microbial fuel cells use bacteria, instead of precious metals, as catalysts in chemical reactions that produce energy. In addition, the technology can be applied to harvesting algae for the oil used to make biodiesel.

Biodiesel, Hydrogen