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Poop-to-power tech begins to smell reasonable

Image: Image of microbial fuel cell
New “microbial fuel cell” cleans municipal sewage and generates electricity at the same time.Orianna Bretschger, Ph.D.

Researchers have created a microbial fuel cell that can convert about 13 percent of the energy in raw sewage into electricity as it helps clean up municipal wastewater.

The technology under development is an improvement from two percent efficiency just a year ago, researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute reported Wednesday at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society.

“That actually puts us in a realm where we could produce a meaningful amount of electricity if this technology is implemented commercially,” Orianna Bretschger, who presented the development, said in a news release.

The idea is to use the electricity generated from the microbial fuel cell to clean up wastewater for no additional energy costs. Some estimates put the energy use of wastewater treatments plants at two percent of overall consumption in the U.S.

The team’s microbial fuel cell relies on naturally-occurring microbes in sewage that produce electrons and protons as they digest organic waste. While this isn’t the first or only microbial fuel cell under development,  its efficiency is, as Bretschger said, “a giant step in the right direction.”

What’s more, the fuel cell cleans up about 97 percent of the organic matter in wastewater. That’s not clean enough to drink – need 99.9 percent for that – but the fuel cell does a lot of the work, meaning less electricity is required for the other steps.

--Via Yale Environment 360

John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. To learn more about him, check out his website  and follow him on Twitter . For more of our Future of Technology  series, watch the featured video below.