Integrating Microbial Electrochemical Technology with Forward Osmosis and Membrane Bioreactors: Low-Energy Wastewater Treatment, Energy Recovery and Water Reuse

  • Craig M. Werner

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Wastewater treatment is energy intensive, with modern wastewater treatment processes consuming 0.6 kWh/m3 of water treated, half of which is required for aeration. Considering that wastewater contains approximately 2 kWh/m3 of energy and represents a reliable alternative water resource, capturing part of this energy and reclaiming the water would offset or even eliminate energy requirements for wastewater treatment and provide a means to augment traditional water supplies. Microbial electrochemical technology is a novel technology platform that uses bacteria capable of producing an electric current outside of the cell to recover energy from wastewater. These bacteria do not require oxygen to respire but instead use an insoluble electrode as their terminal electron acceptor. Two types of microbial electrochemical technologies were investigated in this dissertation: 1) a microbial fuel cell that produces electricity; and 2) a microbial electrolysis cell that produces hydrogen with the addition of external power. On their own, microbial electrochemical technologies do not achieve sufficiently high treatment levels. Innovative approaches that integrate microbial electrochemical technologies with emerging and established membrane-based treatment processes may improve the overall extent of wastewater treatment and reclaim treated water. Forward osmosis is an emerging low-energy membrane-based technology for seawater desalination. In forward osmosis water is transported across a semipermeable membrane driven by an osmotic gradient. The microbial osmotic fuel cell described in this dissertation integrates a microbial fuel cell with forward osmosis to achieve wastewater treatment, energy recovery and partial desalination. This system required no aeration and generated more power than conventional microbial fuel cells using ion exchange membranes by minimizing electrochemical losses. Membrane bioreactors incorporate semipermeable membranes within a biological wastewater treatment process. The anaerobic electrochemical membrane bioreactor described here integrates a microbial electrolysis cell with a membrane bioreactor using conductive hollow fiber membrane to produce hydrogen gas, treat wastewater and reclaim treated water. The energy recovered as hydrogen gas in this system was sufficient to offset all the electrical energy requirements for operation. The findings from these studies significantly improve the prospects for simultaneous wastewater treatment, energy recovery and water reclamation in a single reactor but challenges such as membrane biofouling and conversion of hydrogen to methane by methanogenesis require further study.
Date of AwardJun 2014
Original languageEnglish (US)
Awarding Institution
  • Biological, Environmental Sciences and Engineering
SupervisorGary Amy (Supervisor)


  • Microbial Fuel Cell
  • Forward Osmosis
  • Membrane Bioreactor
  • water reuse
  • Wastewater Treatment
  • energy recovery

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