Engineers at Oregon State University have their minds in the gutter. They’re working on getting more energy from sewage, and they’ve made a discovery that boosts electricity production substantially. By applying a nanoparticle coating to the anodes in fuel cells that turn crap into currents, they increased production nearly 20-fold. It may be strange to think of poop as the holy grail of anything, but poop power is a coveted form of renewable energy because it eliminates waste — which we don’t want — while producing electricity, which we do. In industrialized countries, poo power production could bring down the cost of wastewater treatment, while in developing nations, it may make it possible to treat wastewater for the first time by providing the electricity to do it. Indeed, sewage treatment systems of the future could be self-sufficient in their energy use.
In this particular potty-to-plug technology, bacteria from the sewage are placed in an anode chamber, where they consume nutrients and grow while, in the process, releasing electrons. The researchers put a nanoparticle coating on the graphite anodes – one bit of bad news: the coating was gold. Talk about flushing good money down the toilet! However, iron may work nearly as well, at least for certain kinds of bacteria.
Interesting note: OSU’s Hong Liu, an assistant professor of biological and ecological engineering, gained inspiration for the work when changing her young son’s diapers.