from May 15, 2004
Renewable energy research has recently taken a giant step forward.
Scientists at Penn State have devised the Microbial Fuel Cell, a 15 cm long can that uses bacteria to break down human waste into electrons. Specifically, such waste is pumped into the tiny, sealed can, where it is broken down by clusters of bacteria. Depriving the bacteria of oxygen, the electrons are free to create voltage, which, as all attentive physics students know, is electric potential named after the Italian scientist Alessandro Volta (1745-1827), the inventor of Volta’s pile (singular).
In a word: waste in, power out.
How much power? Using the waste produced by 100,000 people, the current device would produce 5.1 kilowatts, i.e., 5,100 watts. According to our MJTT mathematician, this is enough to keep a 50 watt light bulb blinking for over four days—less if the 100,000 people are on the South Beach diet, more if they are the linebackers Penn State has been famous for producing.
Microbiologist Derek Lovley of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst concedes that generating power from human waste on a large scale is not immediately available. “The principle has been shown,” he says, “but there is a lot of work to do before this is widely used.”
This is no call to despair. Together with solar power, the potential is unlimited. When the moons we have borrowed from our fellow planets have exhausted their usefulness, and with humankind and the sun working in tandem, there is every reason to believe that in several millennia, life on earth will remain sustainable.