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Carnegie Mellon Engineering Professors Create World’s Smallest Fuel Cell Powered By Biology

June 17, 2011

PITTSBURGH, June 17, 2011 /PRNewswire/ — Carnegie Mellon University’s Kelvin B. Gregory and Philip R. LeDuc have created the world’s smallest fuel cell powered by bacteria. Future versions of the biology-powered fuel cell could be used for self-powered sensing devices in remote locations where batteries are impractical, such as deep ocean or geological environments.

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“We have developed a biological fuel cell which uses microbial electricity generation enabled by microfluidic flow control to produce power,” said Gregory, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon.

The new device, the size of a single strand of human hair, generates energy from the metabolism of bacteria on thin gold plates in micro-manufactured channels. The fuel cell recruits necessary bacteria to create a biofilm that utilizes natural organic compounds as fuel to generate power.

Future versions of this tiny bacteria-powered fuel cell could replace batteries in microelectronic devices. While batteries are used to do that today, fuel cells are able to store more energy in the same space.

“Our biology-powered fuel cell could be less costly to make and more easily deployed in remote areas than conventional batteries that require invasive maintenance,” said LeDuc, an associate professor of mechanical engineering with courtesy appointments in Biomedical Engineering, Biological Sciences and Computational Biology departments.

Both researchers report that the evolution of microbial electricity generation is motivated by the potential for renewable energy sources and waste biomass to serve as a fuel for large-scale electricity generation.

“Our work also is prompted by increased interest in improved battery technology for small scale electronic devices and sensors,” Gregory said.

About Carnegie Mellon University: Carnegie Mellon (www.cmu.edu) is a private, internationally ranked research university with programs in areas ranging from science, technology and business, to public policy, the humanities and the arts. More than 11,000 students in the university’s seven schools and colleges benefit from a small student-to-faculty ratio and an education characterized by its focus on creating and implementing solutions for real problems, interdisciplinary collaboration and innovation. A global university, Carnegie Mellon’s main campus in the United States is in Pittsburgh, Pa. It has campuses in California’s Silicon Valley and Qatar, and programs in Asia, Australia, Europe and Mexico. The university is in the midst of a $1 billion fundraising campaign, titled “Inspire Innovation: The Campaign for Carnegie Mellon University,” which aims to build its endowment, support faculty, students and innovative research, and enhance the physical campus with equipment and facility improvements.

SOURCE Carnegie Mellon University


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