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Plant-Microbial Fuel Cell generates electricity from living plants

Wetlands are estimated to account for around six percent of the earths surface and a
new Plant-Microbial Fuel Cell technology developed at Wageningen University &
Research in The Netherlands could see some of these areas become a viable source
of
renewable energy
. More than that, the developers believe that their technology could be used to supply electricity
to remote communities and in green roofs to supply electricity to households.
Unlike biogas, which is produced by the anaerobic digestion or fermentation of biomass,
the Plant-Microbial Fuel Cell generates electricity while the plants continue to grow.
Importantly, the researchers say the system doesnt affect the plants growth of harm its
environment.
It works by taking advantage of the up to 70 percent of organic material produced via
photosynthesis that cant be used by the plant and is excreted through the roots. As
naturally occurring bacteria around the roots break down this organic residue, electrons
are released as a waste product. By placing an electrode close to the bacteria to absorb
these electrons, the Wageningen UR research team, led by Marjolein Helder, was able
to generate electricity.

Although the Plant-Microbial Fuel Cell currently only generates 0.4 W per square meter of plant growth,
the researchers claim this is more than is generated by fermenting biomass. They also say that future

systems could generate as much as 3.2 W per square meter, which would allow a roof measuring 100 m2
to supply electricity to a house with an average consumption of 2,800 kWh a year.
The researchers think such green energy-producing roofs could become a reality in the next few years,
with larger-scale electricity production in marshlands around the world following after 2015. The
technology works with various types of plants, including grasses such as common cordgrass, and rice,
and produces a low-voltage direct current, which can be directly used to charge batteries and power
LEDs.
However, the researchers admit the technology still needs improvement in terms of sustainability and in
finding ways to limit the amount of material used by the electrodes. Despite these hurdles, they claim the
Plant-Microbial Fuel Cell already rivals the economic viability of solar panels in remote areas.
Helder and David Strik, who carried out the first tests of the system, have established a spin-off company
called Plant-e to commercialize the technology and expect to have the first products on the market next
year.

How it is work.

Directly or indirectly, nearly all life on Earth is solar-powered.


Plants convert sunlight into organic compounds that, when consumed by other life, pass on the sun's
energy to the rest of the food web. As humans, we access this stored energy through digestion and by
burning raw or processed plants. Petroleum is just long-dead organic matter transformed by geological
forces, and first-generation biofuels are ginned up from corn, sugar cane and vegetable oil [source: The
New York Times].
Unfortunately, petroleum is as packed with environmental and security problems as it is energy, and firstgeneration biofuels -- which are refined by burning other fuels -- fall well short of carbon neutrality. Worse,
as global food crops literally lose ground to biofuel production, mounting scarcity drives up food prices,
hunger and political instability [source: The New York Times].

But what if there were a way to have our rice and burn it, too? What if we could derive energy from crops
without killing them, or generate power using plants and land not needed for food, all through the power of
microbes? That's the idea behind plant-microbial fuel cells (PMFCs).
When it comes to making life work, plants might get all the good press, but it's the much-maligned
microbe that holds the food chain together. Specifically, cyanobacteria help form its base; gut microbes
help us digest food from it; and soil bacteria turn the resulting waste into nutrients plants can use.
For decades, researchers have dug around for possible ways to draw power from this microbial
metabolism. By the 1970s, their efforts began bearing fruit in the form of microbial fuel cells (MFCs) -devices that generate electricity directly from a chemical reaction catalyzed by microbes [source: Rabaey
and Verstraete]. MFCs offer renewable, low-power options for monitoring pollutants, cleaning and
desalinating water, and powering remote sensors and instruments.
There's a catch, of course: MFCs only function as long as they have something to nosh on -- typically,
organic material in the wastewater [sources: Deng, Chen and Zhao; ONR]. Researchers realized they
could deliver that waste -- an unending, solar-powered buffet of it -- directly to soil microbes from plants
themselves, and the seed of an idea was planted.
By 2008, researchers were publishing papers announcing the first of these plant-powered MFCs, and the
potential grew increasingly clear [sources: Deng, Chen and Zhao; De Schamphelaire et al.; Strik et al.].
Using this scalable technology, villages and farms in developing countries could become self-sufficient,
while industrialized nations could reduce their greenhouse footprints by drawing power from wetlands,
greenhouses or biorefineries [sources: Doty; PlantPower].