Researchers discover a royal flush in powering fuel cells with wastewater

Two Virginia Tech researchers have discovered a way to turn your toilet into the first component of an energy-generating battery.

Xueyang Feng, an assistant professor of biological systems engineering, and Jason He, an associate professor of environmental engineering in the College of Engineering, have developed a method to maximize the amount of electricity that can be generated from the wastewater we flush down the toilet.

They did it by tracing bacteria, which led them to discover that the relationship between two specific substrates produced more energy than either did separately. This took the mystery out of how electrochemically active bacteria create energy and allowed the fuel cells powered by bacteria to be supercharged.

Nationwide, wastewater treatment plants use 5 percent of the country’s entire energy store, so helping to alleviate their energy expenditures is not only a sustainability measure, it also helps keep utility bills low, which leaves more money in consumers’ pockets.