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The United States continues to consume more energy each year. In 2002, the US used 97 quad (97 quadrillion BTUs) of total energy or 28,400 terrawatt hours. Of this, 13 quad was electricity. Globally, worldwide use of energy continues to grow as well, creating additional demands for oil. It is estimated that within 10 to 20 years, the demand will exceed the supply, creating the first global oil crisis. Clearly, new sources of energy are needed. Using other types of fossil fuels is possible, but it creates the potential for continued and elevated releases of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that will contribute to global warming.
Sustainable and renewable forms of energy must be developed using solar, wind and biomass technologies. At Penn State, we are working on technologies to produce electricity directly from organic matter using
microbial fuel cell (MFCs).
In these fuel cells, bacteria serve as the biocatalyst for the oxidation of organic matter and production of electricity. We are also examining using bacteria to make hydrogen gas by conventional methods, such as fermentation, and using newly invented
microbial electrolysis cells (MECs).
In order to make these renewable energy processes economically feasible, we must reduce the costs of energy production. Therefore, we are first developing these technologies using wastewater streams—essentially a free source of organic matter. Wastewater alone will not solve the energy crisis. There is perhaps 0.1 quad in domestic wastewater, 0.3 quad in animal wastewaters, and 0.1 quad in the food industry wastewaters. It is hoped that as these technologies evolve they will become useful techniques for producing energy from a variety of sources of organic matter, providing renewable energy. We have shown, for example, that cellulose can be directly used in either MFCs or MECs to produce renewable energy in the form of electricity or hydrogen gas.
To find out more about these topics, use the links on the left side of this page. To find out more about fuel cell research at Penn State, visit the
H2E Center webpage.