Logan notes, "Basically, we use the same microbial fuel cell we developed to clean wastewater and produce electricity. However, to produce hydrogen, we keep oxygen out of the MFC and add a small amount of power into the system."
In the new MFC, when the bacteria eat biomass, they transfer electrons to an anode. The bacteria also release protons, hydrogen atoms stripped of their electrons, which go into solution. The electrons on the anode migrate via a wire to the cathode, the other electrode in the fuel cell, where they are electrochemically assisted to combine with the protons and produce hydrogen gas.
A voltage in the range of 0.25 volts or more is applied to the circuit by connecting the positive pole of a programmable power supply to the anode and the negative pole to the cathode.
The researchers call their hydrogen-producing MFC a BioElectrochemically-Assisted Microbial Reactor or BEAMR. The BEAMR not only produces hydrogen but simultaneously cleans the wastewater used as its feedstock. It uses about one-tenth of the voltage needed for electrolysis, the process that uses electricity to break water down into hydrogen and oxygen.
Logan adds, "This new process demonstrates, for the first time, that there is real potential to capture hydrogen for fuel from renewable sources for clean transportation."