Microbial Fuel Cells (MFCs) use bacteria(biocatalysts) to convert organic matter (fuel) directly into electricity. They are being developed as a novel biotechnology to harvest energy from dissolved organic matter with potential applications ranging from wastewater treatment to power sources for remote environmental sensors.
MFCs are fed with the wastewater containing both the fuel and the bacteria responsible for its degradation. MFC bacteria, or at least some, will oxidize the fuel and use the anode as an external electron acceptor. Electrical power is generated by the electrons flowing from the anode through an electrical circuit to the cathode, where the reduction of an electron acceptor (usually oxygen) occurs.
While electrical performances of MFCs have greatly increased over the past few years, the technology is not marketable yet. Major breakthroughs leading to the reduction of the cost of reactors (e.g., removing platinum at the cathode) or to an increase of conversion yield and electrical performances are still needed and under way.
The MFC People
Richard Barthollet (Technician)
François Buret (Professor, Electrical Engineering)
Our research group is developing and optimising MFCs capable of generating electricity while treating wastewater. Altough our research mainly focuses on the microbiology of MFCs, we benefit from close ties with electrical engineers, bioengineers and electrochemists present in the Laboratoire Ampere and have developped an interdisciplinary research project addressing the different aspects essential to the technology (electrical and bio-engineering, electrochemistry, microbiology).
To date, there is limited information about the development, structure, function and organization of bacterial communities responsible for electricity production in MFCs. We are among those who believe that a better understanding of these communities remains essential to optimize energy production in MFCs. Our main fundamental research interests aim at
Identifying the processes leading to the development of electro-active communities
Improving MFC performances through a better understanding of the microbial communities
Assessing the significance of extracellular electron transfer in shaping microbial communities
Community analyses are performed using metagenomic approaches at both the DNA and cellular levels (cell recovery and sorting, total DNA extraction, RISA, 16S-based phylogenetic microarrays, pyrosequencing…). Analyses of the biofilm structure, distribution and physiological state of the bacterial cells at the surface of the electrodes are performed using a range of fluorochromes or probes in combination with microscopy techniques and 3D imaging systems.
Our group is also involved in more applied research and has set up pilot scale MFC reactors at a local wastewater treatment plant in collaboration with the City of Lyon ("Grand Lyon"). Our goals are to:
Assess the robustness and potential of the technology under real conditions
Identify the technological barriers
Adapt and optimize the technology (reactor design, electrode materials, hydrodynamics, electricity storage and use...) for specific sites and applications.
The technology and our expertise in environmental microbiology and bioengineering has also led to the creation of a start-up company (Enoveo) who's aim is to provide innovative and efficient environmental bioengineering solutions.
View a video of a microbial fuel cell fed with primary clarifier effluent from a municipal wastewater treatment plant and powering a small propeller.
Lyon, D., Buret, F., Vogel, T.M., Monier J-M. 2010. Is resistance futile? Changing external resistance does not improve microbial fuel cell performance,Bioelectrochemistry. 78: 2-7.
Press and Awards
Les bactéries pour faire de l'électricité Humanité Dimanche, June 2008
Les Biopiles Tout Lyon, March 2007
Une pile à combustible qui se nourrit d'eaux usées Les Echos, March 2007
Carrefours de la Fondation Rhône-Alpes Futur Award Entreprendre dans le Grand Lyon, December 2006