Electricity from sewage?

Waste Water may be an untapped source of energy by using genetically modified ecoli bacteria to produce electricity.

WUWT reader Wayne Delbeke submits this story:

ecoli-bacteria

Sewage treatment plants have used biological processes to produce methane to produce power and reduce some of the energy used in the treatment of waste water. A Vancouver, BC high school student has just won an award for the concept of developing a microbial fuel cell to produce powered by E-coli bacteria in waste water to produce electricity. Perhaps renewable energy from our waste may help to power our cities one day.

Who says young people today aren’t motivated?

He is a good example of the focus and thinking of youth that will be the future using creative thinking:
“Most research around microbial fuel cells is centered around finding some new material that the bacteria like better to generate more electricity, but I kind of flipped it on his head and kind of said, ‘Instead of that why don’t we engineer a better bacteria?’”

As an aside, E-coli bacteria have been modified to produce diesel fuel, hydrogen and other products. A very adaptive little bug.
Link to the International Science and Engineering Fair here:

https://newsroom.intel.com/news-releases/intel-announces-winners-of-2016-intel-international-science-and-engineering-fair/
Read more here, video available:

http://www.ctvnews.ca/sci-tech/vancouver-student-takes-top-75k-prize-at-international-science-fair-1.2904260

More here at the Globe and Mail

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99 thoughts on “Electricity from sewage?

    • Be sure to wash your hands well after servicing to control the spread of deadly pathogens.

      • Just like when I dump my camper holding tanks? What about those folks defecating and blowing it out the side of a 737 at 38,000 feet? Does that give you the germ willies, or what?

    • That was my first thought as well, but then I remembered that, in Australia, most electricity is distributed through overhead cables. The smell would get dissipated into the surrounding air long before it gets to anyone’s home. Would be a problem in the UK, where most cables are underground.

  1. If this is found to be cheap and efficient, and easily installable and scalable worldwide, and since all humans produce waste, expect this to be fought tooth and nail with the full artillary available by every environmentallist on the planet

    • Relax. Just do the energy density calculation.

      There isn’t enough energy in manure to – well – produce moire than a stale wet fart.

      For sure its worth tapping into it – manure is free – but power the world, it wont.

      • But what about a “personal size” poop-to-power digester? Would that provide enough to keep a typical smartphone charged? Think of the market potential! The latest must-have for mellennials: the “CrApple” power adaptor — now you and your iPhone can go longer, without having to go!

      • As I recall, buffalo chips (dried buffalo poop) was a valuable source of fuel for burning during the settling of the US plains. Of course, it was valuable because it was that or nothing. Dried people poop would work, but it wouldn’t give a lot of energy, even though it would be free. So how is modified E coli going to improve the economics of people poop?

    • My view is to modify archea or bacteria to produce liquid hydrocarbons. Heptane is easy to sell in massive quantities at $2 a gallon right now If the taxes are waved $2.75.
      May not be doable but if it is manure from all animals would produce enough revenue to justify a large capital investment. Not in small quantities but for large dairy farms, big hog farms and sewage treatment plants.

  2. This could really work on scale for the Greenies, since most of them are full of crap.

  3. It would be ironic if this GE e.coli which was engineered to save mankind from a non-existent problem, became a more potent e.coli food poisoning bacteria and threatened mankind with a definite problem. The bigger irony though is using s**t to combat s**t “science”

  4. “RUN FOR THE HILLS!! ….. GENETICALLY MODIFIED BACTERIA??!! THE END OF THE WORLD IS NIGH!”, I can just hear the modern Luddites squealing (and these people would have us roll-back societal advances to the Dark-Age.)

  5. Seriously? What happens when it gets into the global ecosystem? Maybe nothing, maybe something, maybe really something.

    • “As an aside, E-coli bacteria have been modified to produce diesel fuel, hydrogen and other products. A very adaptive little bug.”

      Yep. Very adaptive, and found happily living in all our digestive systems. No reason to worry, though, unless you can’t digest diesel fuel.

  6. “Sewage treatment plants have used biological processes to produce methane to produce power and reduce some of the energy used in the treatment of waste water.”

    I love the hat tip to the winner of the prize and the encouragement to our wonderful “Digital Natives”–as mine prefer to be called.

    Nevertheless, the processing of sewage using bacteria came at a price. Sewage treatment plants were much smaller when simple chemicals were used to produce methane from the human waste. When the Boomers decided that all chemicals were nasty snips and snails and puppy dog tails, and all microbial solutions were sugar and spice and everything nice, then the holding tanks had to be greatly increased in size to give the microbes time to produce the methane. This tremendous expansion of the size of the plant required massive amounts of cement, obviously. But chemicals did the job neatly before that.

    Whatsmore, the regulation of the plants often require that the sludge fuel be hauled away for special dumping. The sewage plant in many cases does not use the end product, though it could possibly be burned.

    Processing waste and getting it safely back into the natural water cycle was one of humanity’s finest hours. Children should be taught about the lives of Bazalgette, John Snow, Joseph Lister, and Louis Paseur, as well as John Smeaton (cement) for good measure. These poor young people make up a generation that has no fear of the billions of microbial killers that this earth is home to.

    • Sir Joseph Bazalgette is indeed a (nearly) forgotten hero..and the true creator of London as it is today.

      Sadly, the name is really only known today as it as attached to his great grandson Peter who produces a TV programme aimed at those of sub-moronic intelligence called ‘Big Brother’

      How are the mighty fallen!

    • I hate to nit-pick, but I’m pretty sure they never used ‘simple chemicals’ to produce methane from wastewater.

      Anaerobic digestion was added to the typical wastewater processing train to improve the quality of treated water being released, and (more importantly in many cases) reduce the quantity of sludge that required disposal. The digesters have always produced methane, but it used to be simply vented or flared. Once they decided to collect and “use” the produced methane, the tanks had to become bigger to accommodate an internal bladder for gas storage.

      • Okay, the nit-pick stands. The by products from the chemicals used in secondary treatments all depend on which chemical is added. These are alum, ferric sulfate, ferric chloride, ferrous sulfate, and sodium aluminate. And this gives of various carbonates, etc.

        But this is where sewage treatment gets so darn fascinating to me. DaveK says, “Anaerobic digestion was added to the typical wastewater processing train to improve the quality of treated water being released, and (more importantly in many cases) reduce the quantity of sludge that required disposal.”

        I don’t think it does, and here is why. The coagulation and flocculation process using the chemicals I mention have a holding time of minutes to hours. It has a reduction rate of up to 80% removal. The method using microbiological processes have to be mixed and have heated sludge added for a period of 10-30 days. They use the methane gas to heat the digesters to 90-95 deg F to aid the process. Also, the digested sludge has to be dried. It air dried in sand in greenhouses or heated. It has a 60% removal rate.

        So overall I am happy that my memory of sludge treatment did not entirely fail me, because although methane is not produced using chemicals in secondary treatment, the methane produced microbiologically requires warm temperatures, weeks of stirring and raking, and then drying of the sludge. To me this is not producing. Also it is much more land , time and (probably) energy intensive. So to me it is just another organic folly taken for granted because the Boomers wanted microbes and sold it to everyone as better for the environment.

        Thank you for that very enjoyable discussion about sewage treatment.
        I used some old and some new refs.

      • Although I could point out that the Boomer generation has decided to take human waste directly from dry campground toilets and spread it on public land in my state,

        This would add to the evidence in favor of the fact that they are totally miseducating the following generations about all of the millions of deadly microscopic dangers mankind faces, because of their blind hatred of chemical science applied to technology and agriculture.

  7. Fifteen years ago there was a story in the popular press about a university that made a fuel-cell device that used bacterial action on sewage to generate electricity with similar optimistic about future applications to alternative energy generation. I looked up the abstract, and the numbers and found out a city of 2 million people generated enough bio-fuel cell electricity to light 2,100 watt light bulbs with no consideration for apparatus pumping losses. It is possible Mr Wang had made a huge conversion efficiency improvement but multiple orders of magnitude improvement would be needed to make this a viable energy source.

    There might be an application for remote villages and military camps that have a combined human sewage disposal and an electric supply problem.

    I pretty much ignore press release science information from the get go because the emphasis is on flashy headlines and text that attract readers and build brand not on communications.

    I’m skeptical on this one.

    • Yes, I was wondering about the energy density of this myself. Perhaps with the gasses and dried solids used in fluidized-bed burners you might get self sustaining combustion and make a few KW to sell after you power the auxiliaries.
      Seems to me that the portion of the entire human garbage stream which cannot be recycled should be used to generate power. Dry it, grind it, add gas or pulverized coal for bed stability and run the smoke through scrubbers. Yes, the ash pond will be toxic, but the toxic substances are not scattered about in the oceans, they are contained for remediation.

      • Yup, anaerobic fermentation processes to produce methane are already efficient, but slow. The bigger problem is that energy density in sewage is very low. The energy just ain’t there in the quantities needed. It can never be a significant source of energy to humans.

        The real prize would be to make degradation of cellulose and lignin to methane or hydrogen both fast and efficient.

      • Perhaps as a supplemental power source? Serve as a net reducer of the amount of electricity you pull down from the grid perhaps.

  8. Its disappointing to see the WUWT community so negative about what is simply a thought from a school pupil. It’s actually the kind of thing experimental science should be working on, could actually work and make a contribution to the energy mix.

    • But the problem is that to make methane using microbes in sewage treatment plants requires huge holding tanks and days of constant agitation. Does the methane produced support the process of stirring the sewage for several days?

      I like the article and the spirit behind it, but the use of chemicals to treat the sewage to get methane would use less energy and land space. It was a trade off, made by people who just wanted to use microbes instead of chemicals.

      Microbes from human waste are some of the most deadly “pollutants” of all. I am very concerned about whether this generation knows anything about that.

    • Oh grow up. We already DO process manure into methane. And 30 years ago I knew a biologist working on algal strains to create biomass for energy and fish food.

      The school pupil needs to go away and read a book on energy density – I suggest Mackays ‘without the hot air’ – and then realise that even if he totally succeeded, it would be almost pointless.

    • It is about energy density. PERIOD. Nice science project NOT apropos for energy needs of the country. It is not scalable unless Harry Potter is involved. But magic is what greens spin every day with respect to CO2

  9. But, but, but methane is dangerous. The escathological cargo cult of the CAGW has told me that the arctic will rot if we produce more of it. When the arctic rots, it produces more methane and so recursively rots. Come to think of it, the escathological cargo cult of the CAGW rots, now doesn’t it?

  10. ” A Vancouver, BC high school student has just won an award for the concept of developing a microbial fuel cell to produce powered by E-coli bacteria in waste water to produce electricity.

    Power, not “powered” ?

    • Actually, it is a new concept – force bacteria to make electricity directly. Workable? Who knows. Worth trying? Yes.

      • Wake up people. Living cells, whether single or not, are inherently electrochemical batteries. The trouble with them is that they are designed for efficient reproduction, not power generation. Modifying bacteria to enhance our being able to harvest what we want from fermentation/digestion is as old as humanity. Methinks the kid didn’t do enough research first. That said, this was a nice project. [I helped my step-daughter do a recombinant DNA school science project 20 years ago. Seriously, a lot of this stuff is old news.]

  11. I wonder how cleaning solvents (e.g. toilet cleaners, sink cleansers, antibacterial soaps, etc…) being dumped into drain systems would affect the bacteria? Is the dilution of the components so great that it has a negligible effect upon the life cycle of the modified bacteria? How about antibiotics? Those deliberately flushed and those that make it into the system via human waste products containing prescription antibiotics.

    I wonder if this would be an interesting approach to providing supplemental power to on site septic systems? Maybe reduce the home owner’s purchase of electricity to operate the powered components of their septic units? (e.g. aerators, pump systems, etc…)

    • Why would these affect GMO bacteria different than the non-GMO bacteria currently doing the work right now?

      • Mike, it’s ok. A little rid-x will eat’er all up. Anyway, not all but many cleaners such as dish soap are high in nutrients. Dish soap and bourbon are often used for seed propagation. Don’t tell the greenies we are adding more plant food.

    • If they have anything like the effect they have on septic tanks, they’ll bugger it up altogether.

  12. …Modifying “bugs”…AKA, Bacteria, is a dangerous game….Natural mutation is beyond our control ! Mother Nature knows best !

    • err. perhaps she should have a word with your parents… opps too late

      [I’m leaving this comment by Steve Mosher up to illustrate what a childish commenter he’s became. Sad, just sad. -Anthony]

  13. You don’t need a GM microbe. You can generate methane, hydrogen, hydrocarbons and a lot of other oxidizable materials by allowing fermentation of organic waste with existing microbes in an *oxygen-free* reactor. That’s how methane gets into the permafrost and the marine clathrate (methane hydrate) deposits.
    I dread to think what might happen if there was widespread commercial use of a GM E. coli strain and it escaped into the environment (as it inevitably must) where it could enter human digestive systems.

  14. My first reaction when I skimmed the article was, where in h*ll does a high school student get access to the gear to perform genetic modification of bacteria? Then I read the article more closely:

    A Vancouver, BC high school student has just won an award for the concept of

    In other words, its just a concept. Good on the kid for coming up with it. But practical? The amount of energy that goes into delivering the food that get turns into waste dwarfs the amount of energy contained in the waste itself. Niche applications sure, but as a substantive part of a modern energy structure? Unlikely.

    • I get it, a “what if”.
      Like… “What if an atmospheric increase in CO2 from .035% to .04% had a large effect on global temperature?”

      You can go far in progressive science these days on “what if”s.

  15. Car manufacturers better jump on this for cars of the future. All it takes is a slight alteration of the car seats to a configuration commonly found in the bathrooms in homes around the world along with a suitable ‘digester’ located in the current luggage compartments. Add in in a motor that runs on methane and you are good to go, so to speak.

    Bonus! Reduces the need for rest stops along the interstate highways.

  16. That’s nothing!

    I can create electricity just using a potato and a couple of nails!

    Wait for my grant application to study its feasibility…

  17. Hey, next we can think about powering our grid with lemons and potatoes.

    Or, we could let the energy experts worry about energy and let the environmentalists worry about mentalism. These organic wastes should be used as fertilizer.

    • Well alrighty then. Most things are created by nutrients that can be put back into the soil to fertilize new plants. Every time we harvest catfish from my buddy’s pond, the remains head to me compost foot deep hole for about 4 months. Then I dig out my compost box and add it to my garden mixture.

  18. What a coincidence. I’ve developed a concept for an aero-car resembling a flying saucer, with a clear, bubble top. This fuel cell idea might be useful as an energy source for it.

  19. So now when I excuse myself from the table/office/room and somebody asks where I’m going, I can tell them “I’m going to make electricity”.

  20. Not getting into the feasibility, scalability, dangers of engineered bacteria, or many other side (or snide) comments, congratulations to the high school student. The world needs more bright students who will become scientists in the future and are willing to look at problems in a different light and experiment without the baggage of preconceived conclusions. Well done.

    • The ability to nip completely crackpot ideas in the bud is also a skill to be nurtured in the young aspiring future scientists, before too much money and resources are needlessly wasted.

    • PJ,

      My first thought when reading the article was why try to get electricity out of such a tiny critter as a microbe? Why not try to bio-engineer something a little bigger, such as goldfish, to have the jolt of an electric eel?

      Generating electricity directly from sewage via microbes at the scale of a fuel cell means gathering up and distributing a bunch of poop or its fuel cell derivatives and transporting it in useful quantities to useful locations to refuel or replace fuel cells. That’s a whole ‘nother chunk of infrastructure that will need to be financed and installed. (However, rest stops on interstates would regain their importance as people stopped to make a deposit or withdrawal of feed stock for their fuel cells.)

      Now I would be highly inclined to applaud that student if the conversion of a gallon of sewage can be shown to do more work than does a gallon of diesel fuel when Super-Sludge-Bug has to only be engineered to produce ______ energy. What is that number? Remember, the objective was to bio-engineer a better bug, not make a better feed stock. What kind of output would the new microbe need to generate to beat the current standard of diesel fuel; more than an electric eel? Frankly, I’d be skeptical if Charles Steinmetz himself had proposed the scheme.

      That said, I have the weekend to follow all the links and I’ll issue a mea culpa if I find he has produced some promising, scalable output numbers for his concept which microbes could reasonably be expected to deliver.

      • Well, got a partial answer without going too far:

        Wang, who received the top honor, identified specific genes in genetically enhanced E. coli bacteria that enabled them to generate power efficiently. His system can produce significantly more power than existing MFC processes at a cost that is competitive with solar energy, which he believes will make MFCs commercially viable.

        [Bold Mine]

        Hmm… part of the competitiveness does come from the fact that those bugs can work around the clock, unlike solar. However, it’s not clear if the power generated is Ivanpah solar or pocket calculator solar, so I need to run down a few more links.

      • Once again, this is a high school student working on a science project. It is not a result of some university research project siphoning off funds from government (i.e., taxpayer) or greenie environmental group research grant that is only being provided with the expectation of pre-conceived conclusions. It sounds like he thought outside the box, did some experiments and tests, and won a science prize for doing so. So once again, congratulations to him – well done. I applaud him for his cleverness and creative thinking. It is great to see this level of scientific experimentation being performed at the high school level. I am specifically not commenting on any of the aspects (or probable lack thereof) of applicability for getting energy out of bacteria.

  21. At least our host, WUWT, does not feel this is a crackpot idea. See here:

    As an aside, E-coli bacteria have been modified to produce diesel fuel, hydrogen and other products. A very adaptive little bug.
    Link to the International Science and Engineering Fair here:

    https://newsroom.intel.com/news-releases/intel-announces-winners-of-2016-intel-international-science-and-engineering-fair/

    I think there is room for disagreement on many particulars, and room for a really good discussion about wastewater and also education in general if we stay on topic and offer specific disagreements.

    I suppose anything is a good idea if you don’t compare it to coal, gas and hydro. No one is going to smelt any ore or perform any electrolysis with this. I just wondered if the students know this. I also wonder if they know about how deadly microbes have been to humanity throughout history. And to our crops, and our cattle, and our chickens. Discovering this the story of the triumph of science, and so is the story of how these were controlled and eradicated through the use of chemicals.

    If WUWT will please excuse the forboding remarks. We are bracing ourselves for having this mandated, even as coal is eliminated. This makes us all very irascible.

  22. Imagine the methane you could get from graveyards! Run dead and canadian-euthanizable people through digesters to make methane.

  23. Not an original idea. Well, the kid may have come up with it alone, but the concept is at least 100 years old:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microbial_fuel_cell

    This however, a microbial battery, is something new:

    http://news.stanford.edu/news/2013/september/wired-microbes-electricity-091613.html

    Using modern techniques such as synthetic biology and directed evolution, we should be able to ramp (or amp) up these little electron-shedding batteries fairly quickly.

    • {Delta}G={delta}h + T {delta}S

      Until people understand that equation, all these pipe dreams (or poop dreams) remain dreams

    • Surely.

      Yet the “bacteries” might pan out energetically if the positive node problem be solved.

      The “pooperies”, not so much.

  24. Skeptics here worry about energy density of sewage. True. Human waste has low energy density ave. 6.9 MJ/kg and sewage is even lower because the waste is diluted in water. Energy demand of sewage treatment plant is higher than energy produced from sewage. Bull shit beats man in energy density (12 MJ/kg)

    By the way, the used cooking oil and bacon fat we throw away in the kitchen sink have over 3 times more energy than nitromethane, the fuel used by the 8,000 hp top fuel dragsters

  25. One UK water and sewage company makes a big deal over the “fact” that it produces enough electricity from sewage to power 10,000 homes. That none of the power ever leaves site and that they have had this system in place from when the sites were built has nothing to do with the “green” sheen put on it all.

    James Bull

  26. I think we can all agree that this s a crappy solution. Build molten salt nuclear reactors and spend time trying to invent something worthwhile

  27. China was supposed to use sewage tanks to produce methane back in the 1980s. I even have plans for them (not that I wanted to build one).

  28. Generating pooptricity in large central plants is such antiquated, positively fossil fuel age thinking.

    Lobby the government to provide subsidies for household poop generators and feedin tariff subsidies for the electricity generated. Sue for equality between poop generation and rooftop solar! Carbon credits for eating high fiber cereal! Better call Saul.

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