"DIY Microbial Fuel Cell! EASY!" 

7' x 17'

By: Ona Sian


“Microbes are the center of my fascination for this project/concept and it all begins with their magnificent ability to eat and generate energy.

Microbes are tiny creatures that help remove toxic bacteria and organic material from the water by eating it. Microbes can eat pretty much anything, including human wastes, beauty products, cleaning products and residues such as formaldehyde, ammonia, ethanol, and even petroleum spills.

Here are some examples of the microbes that we owe our lives to; The microbes that are our best friends are: the good bacteria, the swimming, crawling and stalked ciliates, the protozoa and amoebas, the flagellates and rotifers, bristleworms and my personal favorite, Tardigrades also known as Waterbears or moss piglets. Waterbears are the world's most resilient animals;  They’ve been around longer than nearly every other living organism. They can survive extreme conditions that would be rapidly fatal to nearly all other known life forms. They can change form to survive without water and dry up and be brought back to life when reintroduced to water no matter how long they’ve been dead and they can survive in space. (Evolutionistrue. "The Weird Genome of Water Bears (tardigrades): More than a Sixth of It Swiped from Distantly Related Species.")


Alternative energy Ideas for the 21st century;

Microbial Fuel Cells


What’s needed are smarter alternatives: renewable energy sources and technologies that are friendlier to the environment. One alternative could come from the oldest, smallest, and most adaptable creatures on the planet, our friendly microbes.   

Like all living cells, microbes need energy. They get it from food using their own power generating process, called cellular respiration which is a set of metabolic reactions and processes that take place in the cells of organisms to convert biochemical energy from nutrients. And scientists have found a way to capture this energy through a technology called the microbial fuel cell. (Alberts, Bruce. "How Cells Obtain Energy from Food." Molecular Biology of the Cell.)

Originally my concept was to create a system in every neighborhood in the city and rural areas, that collects food waste and compost from each household which would be brought to a facility that uses microbial fuel systems to generate electricity and power the homes or parks of that neighborhood. This way we could kill two birds with one stone by diverting food waste from landfills and at the same time generate renewable energy that would be environmentally friendly and sustainable. It would be a positive closed looped cycle.

I was so intrigued by this concept that I wanted to make a microbial fuel cell myself! After researching I found that the DIY microbial fuel was a common science fair project for kids these days. So naturally I channeled the passion I had when I was a kid who loved making science fair projects and created the working prototype.  

How the DIY microbial fuel cell works: Any organic waste material should be compatible with the microbial fuel cell. As long as there is a balance of bacteria and organic material, microbes will produce electrons as part of its cellular digestion! This type of cell is a relatively new invention. The very first idea of it was formed in 1911, and the first design was developed in 1977. Just like an ordinary battery, a microbial fuel cell has two electrodes held in separate chambers, and it makes electricity from chemical energy. (Paultnylund. "DIY Microbial Fuel Cell! EASY!")

After doing much research I’ve found that yes, harvesting food waste for generating electricity from microbial fuel systems would work and currently scientist are working on prototypes for different types of microbial fuel cells that could be placed in any microbial substance. But, I found that it would most likely generate a lower current than I would have anticipated, and soil is an even lower current. I was just not sure that it would generate enough electricity for a whole neighborhood. Researches have found that the optimum source for the microbial fuel system lies within potent organic mud from nature and wastewater. Therefore, I decided to use mud from a stream at Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve for my microbial fuel cell test.   

As microbes break down organic matter they produce electrons. Normally they surrender their electrons to oxygen molecules in exchange for energy. But in a microbial fuel cell the electrons take a detour. In a microbial fuel cell there are two chambers, the anode (the mud chamber to the left) and the cathode (the water chamber to the right), which both have electrodes inside which in this case are aluminum mesh wrapped together with copper wire. (Paultnylund.

Lindsay Stewart Davis