Pilot scale microbial fuel cells using air cathodes for producing electricity while treating wastewater

Ruggero Rossi, Andy Y. Hur, Martin A. Page, Amalia O'Brien Thomas, Joseph J. Butkiewicz, David W. Jones, Gahyun Baek, Pascal Saikaly, Donald M. Cropek, Bruce Logan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

59 Scopus citations


Microbial fuel cells (MFCs) can generate electrical energy from the oxidation of the organic matter, but they must be demonstrated at large scales, treat real wastewaters, and show the required performance needed at a site to provide a path forward for this technology. Previous pilot-scale studies of MFC technology have relied on systems with aerated catholytes, which limited energy recovery due to the energy consumed by pumping air into the catholyte. In the present study, we developed, deployed, and tested an 850 L (1400 L total liquid volume) air-cathode MFC treating domestic-type wastewater at a centralized wastewater treatment facility. The wastewater was processed over a hydraulic retention time (HRT) of 12 h through a sequence of 17 brush anode modules (11 m2 total projected anode area) and 16 cathode modules, each constructed using two air-cathodes (0.6 m2 each, total cathode area of 20 m2) with the air side facing each other to allow passive air flow. The MFC effluent was further treated in a biofilter (BF) to decrease the organic matter content. The field test was conducted for over six months to fully characterize the electrochemical and wastewater treatment performance. Wastewater quality as well as electrical energy production were routinely monitored. The power produced over six months by the MFC averaged 0.46 ± 0.35 W (0.043 W m–2 normalized to the cross-sectional area of an anode) at a current of 1.54 ± 0.90 A with a coulombic efficiency of 9%. Approximately 49 ± 15 % of the chemical oxygen demand (COD) was removed in the MFC alone as well as a large amount of the biochemical oxygen demand (BOD5) (70%) and total suspended solid (TSS) (48%). In the combined MFC/BF process, up to 91 ± 6 % of the COD and 91 % of the BOD5 were removed as well as certain bacteria (E. coli, 98.9%; fecal coliforms, 99.1%). The average effluent concentration of nitrate was 1.6 ± 2.4 mg L–1, nitrite was 0.17 ± 0.24 mg L–1 and ammonia was 0.4 ± 1.0 mg L–1. The pilot scale reactor presented here is the largest air-cathode MFC ever tested, generating electrical power while treating wastewater.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)118208
JournalWater Research
StatePublished - Mar 22 2022

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology
  • Pollution
  • Ecological Modeling
  • Waste Management and Disposal


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