Here’s the key idea that inspired researcher Yanbiao Liu from Shanghai Jiao Tong University on his recent work: “Organic compounds in wastewater are important sources of energy.” Taking that nugget and running with it, Liu and his colleagues say they’ve come up with a fuel cell system that that begins with wastewater, creates electricity and also cleans up the water.

This breakthrough, reported by the Royal Society of Chemistry and published in the peer-reviewed ChemComm journal, has so far resulted in a small prototype fuel cell that converted the organic compounds in the wastewater to power, while also managing to “clear aromatics, azo dyes, pharmaceuticals, personal care products and endocrine-disrupting compounds.”

sewage treatment fuel cell with light
image via Shutterstock

So how’s the device, also reported on by Geekosystem, work? It starts with a photocatalytic fuel cell made up of a “TiO2-nanotube-array (TNA) anode and a platinum-based cathode.” Using light as its energy source, the cell degrades the organic compounds, generating electrons that pass through to the cathode. The cathode then converts the chemical energy into electrical energy.

A key innovation cited by Lui was the “modification of the electrodes with semiconductors such as CdS,” which made it possible for the system to use visible light and solar light instead of UV light as a catalyst. This has the potential to allow the system to be used outdoors, and by using the created electricity to hlep run the system, to decrease the amount of energy required for vitally necessary wastewater treatment.

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