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Microbial fuel cell

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


A microbial fuel cell (MFC) or biological fuel cell is a device in which micro-organisms oxidize compounds such as glucose, acetate or wastewater. The electrons gained from this oxidation are transferred towards an electrode, called the anode. From the anode, the electrons depart through an electrical circuit towards a second electrode, the cathode. At the cathode, the electrons are transferred towards a high potential electron acceptor, preferrably oxygen. As current now flows over a potential difference, power is generated as a result of bacterial activity.

The power outputs reported thus far are usually small, in the order of magnitude of about a milliwatt. While no commercially available applications exist at the moment, this is expected to change in the coming years. Mainly electricity generation out of wastewater is one of the main focuses at the moment. Also glucose-powered pacemakers that would need no other power supply than the glucose present in the bloodstream, bio-sensors, and nutrient removal systems are under development.[citation needed]

Microbial fuel cell

A microbial fuel cell is a device that converts chemical energy to electrical energy by the catalytic reaction of microorganisms (Allen and Bennetto, 1993). A typical microbial fuel cell consists of anode and cathode compartments separated by a cation specific membrane. In the anode compartment, fuel is oxidized by microorganisms, generating electrons and protons. Electrons are transferred to the cathode compartment through an external electric circuit, and the protons are transferred to the cathode compartment through the membrane. Electrons and protons are consumed in the cathode compartment, combining with oxygen to form water. In general, there are two types of microbial fuel cell, mediator and mediator-less microbial fuel cell. Biological fuel cells take glucose and methanol from food scraps and convert it into hydrogen and food for the bacteria.

Mediator Microbial Fuel Cell

Most of the microbial cells are electrochemically inactive. The electron transfer from microbial cells to the electrode is facilitated by mediators such as potassium ferric cyanide, thionine, methyl viologen (methyl blue), humic acid, neutral red and so on (Delaney et al., 1984; Lithgow et al., 1986). Most of the mediators available are expensive and toxic.

Mediator-less Microbial Fuel Cell

Mediator-less microbial fuel cells have been engineered at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology [1], by a team led by Kim, Byung Hong [1]. A mediator-less microbial fuel cell does not require a mediator but uses electrochemically active bacteria to transfer electrons to the electrode (electrons are carried directly from the bacterial respiratory enzyme to the electrode). Among the electrochemically active bacteria are, Shewanella putrefaciens (Kim et al., 1999a), Aeromonas hydrophila (Cuong et al., 2003), and others.

Mediator-less MFCs are a much more recent development and due to this the factors that affect optimum operation, such as the bacteria used in the system, the type of ion membrane, and the system conditions such as temperature, are not particularly well understood. Bacteria in mediator-less MFCs typically have electrochemically-active redox enzymes such as cytochromes on their outer membrane that can transfer electrons to external materials(15).

Generating electricity

When micro-organisms consume a substrate such as sugar in aerobic conditions they produce carbon dioxide and water, however when oxygen is not present they produce carbon dioxide, protons and electrons as described below:

C12H22O11 + 13H2O ---> 12CO2 + 48H+ + 48e- Eqt. 1

Microbial fuel cells use inorganic mediators to tap into the electron transport chain of cells and steal these electrons that are produced. The mediator crosses the outer cell lipid membranes and plasma wall; it then begins to liberate electrons from the electron transport chain that would normally be taken up by oxygen or other intermediates. The now reduced mediator exits the cell laden with electrons that it shuttles to an electrode where it deposits them; this electrode becomes the electro-generic anode (negatively charged electrode). The release of the electrons means that the mediator returns to its original oxidised state ready to repeat the process. It is important to note that this can only happen under anaerobic conditions, if oxygen is present then it will collect all the electrons as it has a greater electronegativity than the mediator.

A number of mediators have been suggested for use in microbial fuel cells, these include natural red, methylene blue, thionine or resorfuin(21).

This is the principle behind generating a flow of electrons from most micro-organisms. In order to turn this into a usable supply of electricity this process has to be accommodated into a fuel cell.

In order to generate a useful current it is necessary to create a complete circuit, not just shuttle electrons to a single point.

The mediator and micro-organism, in this case yeast, are mixed together in a solution to which is added a suitable substrate such as glucose. This mixture is placed in a sealed chamber to stop oxygen entering, thus forcing the micro-organism to use anaerobic respiration. An electrode is placed in the solution that will act as the anode as described previously.

In the second chamber of the MFC is another solution and electrode. This electrode, called the cathode is positively charged and is the equivalent of the oxygen sink at the end of the electron transport chain only now it is external to the biological cell. The solution is an oxidizing agent that picks up the electrons at the cathode, as with the electron chain in the yeast cell this could be a number of molecules such as oxygen, however this is not particularly practical as it would require large volumes of circulating gas. A more convenient option is to use a solution of a solid oxidizing agent.

Connecting the two electrodes is a wire (or other electrically conductive path which may include some electrically powered device such as a light bulb), and completing the circuit and connecting the two chambers is a salt bridge or ion exchange membrane. This last feature allows the protons produced, as described in Eqt. 1 to pass from the anode chamber to the cathode chamber.

The reduced mediator carries electrons from the cell to the electrode, here the mediator is oxidized as it deposits the electrons, these then flow across the wire to the second electrode, which acts as an electron sink, from here they pass to an oxidising material.


Power generation

Microbial fuel cells have a number of potential uses. The first and most obvious is harvesting the electricity produced for a power source. Virtually any organic material could be used to ‘feed’ the fuel cell. MFCs could be installed to waste water treatment plants. The bacteria would consume waste material from the water and produce supplementary power for the plant. The gains to be made from doing this are that MFCs are a very clean and efficient method of energy production. A fuel cell’s emissions are well below regulations (16). MFCs also use energy much more efficiently than standard combustion engines which are limited by the Carnot Cycle. In theory a MFC is capable of energy efficiency far beyond 50%(17).

However MFCs do not have to be used on a large scale, it has even been suggested that MFCs could be implanted in the body to be employed as a power source for a pacemaker, a microsensor or a microactuator. The MFC would take glucose from the blood stream or possibly other substrates contained in the body and use this to generate electricity to power these devices(18). The advantages to using a MFC in this situation as opposed to a normal battery is that it uses a renewable form of energy and would not need to be recharged like a standard battery would. In addition to this they could also be built very small, and they operate well in mild conditions, 20°C to 40°C and also at pH of around 7(19).

Further Uses

The electricity from the fuel cells could be harnessed for use by applications such as EcoBots, Gastrobots and Biosensors

Since the current generated from a microbial fuel cell is directly proportional to the strength of wastewater used as the fuel, an MFC can be used to measure the strength of wastewater [Kim, B. H., Chang, I. S., Gil, G. C., Park, H. S. and Kim, H. J. (2003) Novel BOD (biological oxygen demand) sensor using mediator-less microbial fuel cell. Biotechnology Letters, 25, 541-545.] The strength of wastewater is commonly evaluated as biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) values. BOD values are determiined incubating samples for 5 days with proper source of microbes, usually activate sludge collected from sewage works. When BOD values are used as a real time control parameter, 5 days' incubation is too long. An MFC-type BOD sensor can be used to measure real time BOD values. Oxygen and nitrate are preferred electron acceptors over the electrode reducing current generation from an MFC. An MFC-type BOD sensors underestimate BOD values in the presence of these electron acceptors. This can be avoided inhibiting aerobic and nitrate respirations in the MFC using terminal oxydase inhibitors such as cyanide and azide [Chang, I. S., Moon, H., Jang, J. K. and Kim, B. H. (2005) Improvement of a microbial fuel cell performance as a BOD sensor using respiratory inhibitors. Biosensors and Bioelectronics 20, 1856-1859.] This type of BOD sensor is commercially available.

Current research practices

Currently, most researchers in this field are biologists rather than electrochemists or engineers. This has prompted some researchers (Menicucci, 2005) to point out some undesirable practices, such as recording the maximum current obtained by the cell when connecting it to a resistance as an indication of its performance, instead of the steady-state current that is often a degree of magnitude lower. Sometimes, data about the value of the used resistance is scanty, leading to non-comparable data.


At the turn of the last century, the idea of using microbial cells in an attempt to produce electricity was first conceived. M. C. Potter was the first to perform work on the subject in 1912(10). A professor of botany at the University of Durham Potter managed to generate electricity from E. Coli, however the work was not to receive any major coverage. In 1931 however Barnet Cohen drew more attention to the area when he created a number of microbial half fuel cells that, when connected in series, were capable of producing over 35 volts, though only with a current of 2 milliamps(11). More work on the subject came with a study by DelDuca et al. who used hydrogen produced by the fermentation of glucose by Clostridium butyricum as the reactant at the anode of a hydrogen and air fuel cell. Unfortunately, though the cell functioned it was found to be unreliable due to the unstable nature of the hydrogen production from the micro-organisms(12). Although this issue was later resolved in work by Suzuki et al. in 1976(13) the current design concept of a MFC came into existence a year later with work once again by Suzuki(14).

Even by the time of Suzuki’s work in the late seventies little was understood about how these microbial fuel cells functioned, however the idea was picked up and studied later in more detail first by MJ Allen and then later by H. Peter Bennetto both from Kings College In London. Bennetto saw the fuel cell as a possible method for the generation of electricity for third world countries. His work, starting in the early 1980s helped build an understanding of how fuel cells operate and until his retirement was seen by many as the foremost authority on the subject.

It is now known that electricity can be produced directly from the degradation of organic matter in a microbial fuel cell, although the exact mechanisms of the process are still to be fully understood. Like a normal fuel cell an MFC has both an anode and a cathode chamber. The anaerobic anode chamber is connected internally to the cathode chamber by an ion exchange membrane, the circuit is completed by an external wire.

See also

  • Hydrogen technologies
  • Hydrogen hypothesis


  1. - Allen, R.M. and Bennetto, H.P. 1993. Microbial fuel cells—Electricity production from carbohydrates. Appl. Biochem. Biotechnol., 39/40, pp. 27–40.
  2. - Cuong, A.P. , Jung, S.J., Phung, N.T., Lee, J., Chang, I.S., Kim, B.H., Yi, H. and Chun, J. 2003. A novel electrochemically active and Fe(III)-reducing bacterium phylogenetically related to Aeromonas hydrophila, isolated from a microbial fuel cell. FEMS Microbiol. Lett., Volume 223(1) : 129-134.
  3. - Delaney, G.M., Bennetto, H.P., Mason, J.R., Roller, H.D.,Stirling, J.L., and Thurston, C.F. 1984. Electron-transfer coupling in microbial fuel cells: 2. Performance of fuel cells containing selected micoorganism-mediator-substrate combinations. J Chem. Tech. Biotechnol., 34B: 13–27.
  4. - Gil, G.C., Chang, I.S., Kim, B.H., Kim, M., Jang, J.K., Park, H.S., Kim, H.J., 2003. Operational parameters affecting the performance of a mediator-less microbial fuel. Biosen. Bioelectron. 18, 327–334.
  5. - Kim, B.H., Kim, H.J., Hyun, M.S., Park, D.H. 1999a. Direct electrode reaction of Fe (III) reducing bacterium, Shewanella putrefacience. J Microbiol. Biotechnol. 9:127–131.
  6. - Kim, H.J., Hyun, M.S., Chang, I.S., Kim, B.H. 1999b. A microbial fuel cell type lactate biosensor using a metal-reducing bacterium, Shewanella putrefaciens. J Microbiol. Biotechnol. 9:365–367.
  7. - Kim HJ, Park HS, Hyun MS, Chang IS, Kim M, Kim BH. A mediator-less microbial fuel cell using a metal reducing bacterium, Shewanella putrefaciens. Enzyme Microb. Technol. 2002;30: 145–152.
  8. - Lithgow, A.M., Romero, L., Sanchez, I.C., Souto, F.A.,and Vega,C.A. 1986. Interception of electron-transport chain in bacteria with hydrophilic redox mediators. J. Chem. Research, (S):178–179.
  9. -Joseph Anthony Menicucci Jr., Haluk Beyenal, Enrico Marsili, Raaja Raajan Angathevar Veluchamy, Goksel Demir, and Zbigniew Lewandowski, Sustainable Power Measurement for a Microbial Fuel Cell, AIChE Annual Meeting 2005, Cincinnati, USA.
  10. - Potter, M. C. (1912). Electrical effects accompanying the decomposition of organic compounds. Royal Society (Formerly Proceedings of the Royal Society) B, 84, p290-276.
  11. - Cohen, B. (1931). The Bacterial Culture as an Electrical Half-Cell, Journal of Bacteriology, 21, pp18-19
  12. - DelDuca, M. G., Friscoe, J. M. and Zurilla, R. W. (1963). Developments in Industrial Microbiology. American Institute of Biological Sciences, 4, pp81-84.
  13. - Karube, I., Matasunga, T., Suzuki, S. and Tsuru, S. (1976) Continuous Hydrogen Production by Immobilized Whole Cells of Clostridium Butyricum. Biocheimica et Biophysica Acta, 24 (2), pp338-343
  14. - Karube, I., Matasunga, T., Suzuki, S. and Tsuru, S. (1977). Biochemical Cells Utilizing Immobilized Cells of Clostridium butyricum. Biotechnology and Bioengineering, 19, pp1727-1733.
  15. - Min, B., Cheng, S. and Logan B. E. (2005). Electricity generation using membrane and salt bridge microbial fuel cells, Water Research, 39 (9), pp1675-86
  16. - Choi Y., Jung S. and Kim S. (2000) Development of Microbial Fuel Cells Using Proteus Vulgaris Bulletin of the Korean Chemical Society, 21 (1), pp44-48
  17. - Yue P.L. and Lowther K. (1986). Enzymatic Oxidation of C1 compounds in a Biochemical Fuel Cell The Chemical Engineering Journal 33
  18. - Chen, T., Barton, S. C., Binyamin, G., Gao, Z., Zhang, Y., Kim, H-H. and Heller, A. (2001). A miniature Biofuel Cell, Journal of the American Chemical Society, 123, pp8630-8631
  19. - Bullen, R. A., Arnot, T. C., Lakeman, J. B. and Walsh, F.C. (2005). Biofuel cells and their development Biosensors & Bioelectronics, 21 (11), pp2015-2045
  20. - Bennetto, H. P. (1990). Electricity Generation by Micro-organisms Biotechnology Education, 1 (4), pp163-168
  21. - Bennetto, H. P., Stirling, J. L., Tanaka, K. and Vega C. A. (1983). Anodic Reaction in Microbial Fuel Cells Biotechnology and Bioengineering, 25, pp 559-568.

External links

  • Microbial Fuel Cell blog Post a comment on MFC technology.
  • Microbial Fuel Cells This website is originating from a few of the research groups currently active in the MFC research domain.
  • Microbial Fuel Cells from Rhodopherax Ferrireducens An overview from the Science Creative Quarterly.




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