Sick of watching raw sewage and wastewater just laze about all day getting a free ride and harboring vile diseases, a team at Oregon State University has made strides in putting the gnarliest substance on planet Earth to work. Their new technique rethinks the way wastewater is treated, and has the potential to produce 50 times more electricity than conventional approaches to generating power from poo water. Yes, there are conventional approaches to that. They may soon take a backseat to the seemingly more efficient OSU method, which could turn sewage treatment facilities into miniature power plants.
Wastewater is currently treated with an active sludge technique, which is exactly as pleasant as it sounds, and works to clean water by introducing oxygen and bacteria to sewage and industrial waste, then letting the cleaned water separate from sediment as it travels through a series of tanks and filters.
The technique developed by OSU, wastewater is treated within a fuel cell. Cleaning bacteria are introduced that oxidize the organic matter, or “dookie,” in sewage and produce electrons. Those electrons travel through the fuel cell, creating an electrical current more powerful than anything seen in prior microbial fuel cells, but without the drawback of producing greenhouse gasses like methane.
The technique also has the benefit of being easy to tune to different kinds of wastewater, making it appropriate for not only municipal water treatment plants, but other sources like dairies and food processing facilities, who could not only power their own operations, but conceivably have energy leftover to sell back to the grid.
Initially developed in 2007, OSU’s technique has needed a couple years of fine tuning. Those years also saw costs for the involved materials drop, making the process more attractive. While the technique has been successful in lab tests, it has yet to see any real-world exposure. Researchers are currently looking to debut a real-world version of the treatment system and are searching for promising candidate sites.
So, if you know anyone who has had a lifelong dream of using their excrement to provide power to the whole neighborhood, maybe put them in touch with OSU? Also, maybe question the kind of people you associate with, because that’s not a standard issue lifelong dream.
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