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Microbes Power Waste Cleanup

Sep 19, 2014 05:38 PM EDT

A new unique method utilizing microbes to power waste cleanup is not only cleaning up waterways but the atmosphere as well, as it helps to reduce pollution, according to a new study.

Researchers at Washington State University (WSU) created the first microbe-powered, self-sustaining wastewater treatment system that could simultaneously clean up waste from large farming operations and rural sewage treatment plants quickly and cheaply while reducing pollution.

The new system, described in the Journal of Power Sources, is a greener approach to traditional wastewater cleanup methods. Normally, waste from dairy farms in rural areas is placed in a series of ponds to be eaten by bacteria, generating carbon dioxide and methane pollution, until the waste is safely treated. In urban areas with larger infrastructure, electrically powered aerators mix water in the ponds, allowing for the waste to be cleaned faster and with fewer harmful emissions.

But most rural farmers can't afford the latter, cleaner aerators.

Given that as much as five percent of energy used in the United States is used for wastewater treatment, the new microbe method could change things for the better.

"Everyone is looking to improve dairies to keep them in business and to keep these family businesses going,'' co-author Timothy Ewing in the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture said in a statement.

"This is the first step towards sustainable wastewater treatment,'' he added.

Microbial fuel cells use biological reactions from microbes in water to create electricity. The WSU researchers developed a microbial fuel cell that does the work of the aerator, using only the power of microbes in the sewage lagoons to generate electricity.

Under favorable conditions, the researchers were able to grow microbes that can naturally generate electrons as part of their metabolic processes. The microbes were able to successfully power aerators in the lab for more than a year, and the research team is hoping to test a full-scale pilot for eventual commercialization.

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