Autonomous, Retrievable, Deep Sea Microbial Fuel Cell

Tuesday, 16 December 2014
Ken Richter, US Navy, Washington, DC, United States
Microbial fuel cells (MFCs) work by providing bacteria in anaerobic sediments with an electron acceptor (anode) that stimulates metabolism of organic matter. The buried anode is connected via control circuitry to a cathode exposed to oxygen in the overlying water. During metabolism, bacteria release hydrogen ions into the sediment and transfer electrons extra-cellularly to the anode, which eventually reduce dissolved oxygen at the cathode, forming water. The open circuit voltage is approximately 0.8 v. The voltage between electrodes is operationally kept at 0.4 v with a potentiastat. The current is chiefly limited by the rate of microbial metabolism at the anode. The Office of Naval Research has encouraged development of microbial fuel cells in the marine environment at a number of academic and naval institutions.

Earlier work in shallow sediments of San Diego Bay showed that the most important environmental parameters that control fuel cell power output in San Diego Bay were total organic carbon in the sediment and seasonal water temperature. Current MFC work at SPAWAR includes extension of microbial fuel cell tests to the deep sea environment (>1000 m) and, in parallel, testing microbial fuel cells in the laboratory under deep sea conditions. One question we are asking is whether MFC power output from deep water sediments repressurized and chilled in the laboratory comparable to those measured in situ. If yes, mapping the power potential of deep sea sediments may be made much easier, requiring sediment grabs and lab tests rather than deployment and retrieval of fuel cells. Another question we are asking is whether in situ temperature and total organic carbon in the deep sea sediment can predict MFC power. If yes, then we can make use of the large collection of publicly available, deep sea oceanographic measurements to make these predictions, foregoing expensive work at sea. These regressions will be compared to those derived from shallow water measurements.