With the era of peak oil upon us – and growing concerns about the impact of climate change - there are ongoing debates in Ireland and elsewhere about future energy, with various alternative energies proposed from renewable to wind, to hydroelectric power and wave. Nuclear energy has also re-emerged as an option. But other, newer technologies are also being talked about, and indeed are well into research and development stages, in the areas of biotechnology and nanotechnology. For more background on energy planning and debates in Ireland, please see the ‘Ireland’s Energy Challenges’ document.
A proposed “bionano” solution at DCU
One of the bioengineered solutions offered by Dublin City University is a project funded by QUESTOR in Belfast exploring bioelectricity production from wastewater in Microbial Fuel Cells , being investigated and developed by one of our biotechnology researchers at DCU, Dr. Enrico Marsili. There are two ‘green’ technological processes derived from this idea: 1) wastewater treatment and 2) the use of microbial cells as miniature ‘batteries’ to produce energy. With increased populations, synergetic exercises like this are increasingly common – in this case how do we treat wastewater as well as creating a new type of energy production?
Clean water demands increase the consumption of fossil fuel-based energy reserves as well as global greenhouse gas emissions. Wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) operation accounts for 1.5% of the electricity consumption and 5% of greenhouse gas emissions. Energy recovery technologies are proposed to reduce cost and energy consumption of WWTPs. MFCs convert the chemical energy of wastewater directly into electrical energy, through microbial catalysts. MFCs are very simple bioreactors, essentially vats that harnesses energy from biological processes. In one example, a “biofilm” is created from an organism called Shewanella oneidensis. It has been seen that these organisms are good at transferring electrons across metals. Bionanoscientists have been able to create special ”nanowires” as extended “arms” on these organisms, making them more electrochemically active.
However, there are some issues raised specifically about these microbial fuel cell (MFC) technologies, questions that could be described as both scientific and socio-political.
We need to gather as much knowledge on these issues as possible. Questions that we now open for wider discussion online are: