Fundamental Insights into Propionate Oxidation in Microbial Electrolysis Cells Using a Combination of Electrochemical, Molecular biology and Electron Balance Approaches

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Increasing demand for freshwater and energy is pushing towards the development of alternative technologies that are sustainable. One of the realistic solutions to address this is utilization of the renewable resources like wastewater. Conventional wastewater treatment processes can be highly energy demanding and can fails to recover the full potential of useful resources such as energy in the wastewater. As a consequence, there is an urgent necessity for sustainable wastewater treatment technologies that could harness such resources present in wastewaters. Advanced treatment process based on microbial electrochemical technologies (METs) such as microbial fuel cells (MFCs) and microbial electrolysis cells (MECs) have a great potential for the resources recovery through a sustainable wastewater treatment process. METs rely on the abilities of microorganisms that are capable of transferring electrons extracellularly by oxidizing the organic matter in the wastewater and producing electrical current for electricity generation (MFC) or H2 and CH4 production (MEC). Propionate is an important volatile fatty acid (VFA) (24-70%) in some wastewaters and accumulation of this VFA can cause a process failure in a conventional anaerobic digestion (AD) system. To address this issue, MECs were explored as a novel, alternative wastewater treatment technology, with a focus on a better understanding of propionate oxidation in the anode of MECs. Having such knowledge could help in the development of more robust and efficient wastewater treatment systems to recover energy and produce high quality effluents. Several studies were conducted to: 1) determine the paths of electron flow in the anode of propionate fed MECs low (4.5 mM) and high (36 mM) propionate concentrations; 2) examine the effect of different set anode potentials on the electrochemical performance, propionate degradation, electron fluxes, and microbial community structure in MECs fed propionate; and 3) examine the temporal dynamics of microbial communities in MECs fed with low or high concentration of acetate or propionate relating to the reactor performance. Overall, the findings from these studies provides new knowledge on propionate oxidation in MECs. The discovery of such findings may shed light on the development of an energy positive wastewater treatment process capable of producing a high quality effluent.
Date of AwardNov 2016
Original languageEnglish (US)
Awarding Institution
  • Biological, Environmental Sciences and Engineering
SupervisorPascal Saikaly (Supervisor)


  • Propionate oxidation
  • Microbial Electrolysis Cells
  • multiple paths
  • microbial community dynamics
  • syntrophy
  • Electron fluxes

Cite this