OSU scientists generate electricity from wastewater

Oregon State University Professor Hong Liu is working on technology that would allow treatment facilities to generate energy using microbes found in wastewater.
Courtesy Oregon State University

Oregon State University Professor Hong Liu is working on technology that would allow treatment facilities to generate energy using microbes found in wastewater.

Oregon State University engineers have developed new technology that produces electricity using microbial fuel cells found in wastewater.

This new form of energy production, announced Monday, could allow for treatment plants to not only power themselves, but sell excess electricity as well. OSU’s discovery allows for the production of significant amounts of electricity as well as effectively cleaning water.

“If this technology works on a commercial scale the way we believe it will, the treatment of wastewater could be a huge energy producer, not a huge energy cost,” said Hong Liu, an associate professor in the OSU Department of Biological and Ecological Engineering, in a press release. “This could have an impact around the world, save a great deal of money, provide better water treatment and promote energy sustainability.”

Experts estimate that roughly 3 percent of the electrical energy consumed in the United States and other developed countries is used to treat wastewater. This new system will produce three times the amount of energy that is currently being used to process waste, as well as limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Liu said that the system has been proven in the laboratory and the next step will be a pilot study. The university is looking for an industry partner that would help fund the next phase.

Researchers estimate that once the technology is fine tuned to reduce upfront costs, construction of plants will be comparable to that of the activated sludge systems that are currently used to treat water.

The ability of microbes to produce electricity has been known for decades, but only recently has technology made the level of production high enough to be of commercial use.

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