Microbes can boost fuel cell performance

April 22, 2005 at 9:40 PM
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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa., April 22 (UPI) -- An electrically-assisted microbial fuel cell that does not require oxygen enabled U.S. researchers to boost hydrogen production from biomass.

The technique could help reduce the cost of hydrogen-powered vehicles and water-filtration operations.

Environmental engineers at Penn State University and a research scientist at Ion Power Inc. developed a process that enables bacteria to coax four times as much hydrogen directly out of biomass than usually is generated by fermentation alone.

Hydrogen production by bacterial fermentation is currently limited by a factor called the fermentation barrier, in which bacteria, without a power boost, can convert carbohydrates only to a limited amount of hydrogen and a mixture of other, generally unusable fermentation end products such as acetic and butyric acids.

By giving the bacteria a small assist with a tiny amount of electricity -- about 0.25 volts, a small fraction of the voltage needed to run a typical 6-volt cell phone -- the researchers breached the fermentation barrier and converted acetic acid, one of the formerly unusable products, into carbon dioxide and hydrogen

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