Procedure for determining maximum sustainable power generated by microbial fuel cells
Menicucci, Joseph A. Jr.
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Power generated by microbial fuel cells is computed as a product of current passing through an external resistor and voltage drop across this resistor. If the applied resistance is very low, then high instantaneous power generated by the cell is measured, which is not sustainable; the cell cannot deliver that much power for long periods of time. Since using small electrical resistors leads to erroneous assessment of the capabilities of microbial fuel cells, a question arises: what resistor should be used in such measurements? To address this question, we have defined the sustainable power as the steady state of power delivery by a microbial fuel cell under a given set of conditions and the maximum sustainable power as the highest sustainable power that a microbial fuel cell can deliver under a given set of conditions. Selecting the external resistance that is associated with the maximum sustainable power in a microbial fuel cell (MFC) is difficult because the operator has limited influence on the main factors that control power generation: the rate of charge transfer at the current-limiting electrode and the potential established across the fuel cell. The internal electrical resistance of microbial fuel cells varies, and it depends on the operational conditions of the fuel cell. We have designed an empirical procedure to predict the maximum sustainable power that can be generated by a microbial fuel cell operated under a given set of conditions. Following the procedure, we change the external resistors incrementally, in steps of 500 Ω every 10, 60, or 180 s and measure the anode potential, the cathode potential, and the cell current. Power generated in the microbial fuel cell that we were using was limited by the anodic current. The anodic potential was used to determine the condition where the maximum sustainable power is obtained. The procedure is simple, microbial fuel cells can be characterized within an hour, and the results of the measurements can serve many purposes, such as: (1) estimating power generation in various MFCs, (2) comparing power generation in MFCs using different electroactive reactants, (3) quantifying the effects of the operational regime on the power generation in MFCs, and finally, (4) the purpose for which the procedure was designed, optimizing the performance of existing MFCs.