SUPERGEN Biological Fuel Cells
A consortium of teams from UK universities aims to achieve major advances in a technology that potentially produces electricity directly from sustainable biological materials and air, in devices known as biological fuel cells.
These devices are of two main types: in microbial fuel cells (MFCs) micro-organisms convert organic materials into fuels that can be oxidised in electrochemical cells, and in enzymatic fuel cells electricity is produced as a result of the action of an enzyme (a biological catalyst).
"Fuels" that can be used include:
- pure biochemicals such as glucose
- hydrogen gas
- organic chemicals present in waste water
The Consortium programme involves a unique combination of microbiology, enzymology, synthetic chemistry, electrochemistry, fuel cell engineering, materials science and computational modelling.
Key challenges that the Consortium will face include modelling and understanding the interaction of an electrochemical cell and a population of micro-organisms, attaching and optimising appropriate enzymes, developing and studying synthetic assemblies that contain the active site of a natural enzyme, optimising electrode materials for this application, and designing, building and testing novel biological fuel cells.
A "Biofuel Cells Industrial Club" has been formed, with industrial partners active in water management, porous materials, microbiology, biological catalysis and fuel cell technology. The programme and its outcomes will be significant steps towards producing electricity from materials and techniques originating in the life sciences.
The technology is likely to be perceived as "greener" than use of solely chemical and engineering approaches, and there is considerable potential for spin off in changed technologies (e.g. cost reductions, reduction in the need for precious metals, biological catalysts for production of hydrogen by electrolysis).