In most cases, the terms “green energy” and “clean energy” go hand in hand.
But what if there was a way to produce a sustainable clean energy solution from one of the filthiest sources available?
Well, researchers at Penn State have done just that.
In short, they’ve discovered a way to generate electricity using untreated wastewater. And whether you like it or not, it could one day be powering anything from your dishwasher to your electric toothbrush.
Let me explain…
It’s Time to Give Sewage a Little Love
Many sewage treatment plants currently use bacteria to treat wastewater. Essentially, the bacteria help clean the water by eating the organic material.
But researchers at Penn State have found an even more productive use for the bacteria.
Led by environmental engineer, Bruce Logan, they’ve designed special microbial fuel cells that use “bacteria to turn any organic matter directly into electricity.”
Surprisingly, the process is quite simple…
Just like during a normal water treatment process, the bacteria munch on the organic waste in the water and release electrons as a byproduct.
With the newly developed fuel cell, however, scientists are able to scoop up the electrons and send them through a circuit, where they generate an electric charge.
At this early stage of testing, the charge is still not substantial enough to meet consumer demand. But eventually, Logan expects these fuel cells to generate enough electricity to power entire water treatment plants. He even believes there will be enough leftover energy to support some of the electricity needs of nearby residents.
Considering that in the United States, we use 5% of our electricity to run our water infrastructure, the breakthrough represents a chance for us to cut costs, while also curbing our reliance on fossil fuels.
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And while this is exciting news for U.S. consumers, the technology has the potential to have an even greater impact on developing parts of the world.
The Life Saving Potential of… Wastewater?
You see, according to the World Health Organization, 2.6 billion people in the world don’t have access to adequate water treatment facilities.
The United Nations’ plan to fix the problem is costing it $9.5 billion a year. What’s worse, the total cost to get sanitation services to everyone in the world will reach $190 billion over the next 20 years.
Needless to say, a technology that generates enough free energy to power wastewater facilities should speed up the UN’s goal significantly. And reduce health risks for a lot of people.
Right now, the biggest hurdle to large-scale implementation of the technology is how to make the fuel cell economical.
But costs are already being dramatically slashed. According to Logan, “In the early reactors, we used very expensive graphite rods and expensive polymers and precious metals like platinum. And we’ve now reached the point where we don’t have to use any precious metals.”
By Logan’s own estimate, the technology should be ready for mainstream use in the next five to 10 years.
Considering this emerging technology has the ability to improve the standard of living for billions of people and save billions of dollars, I’d say it’s worth the wait.