Christmas Lights Powered By Poop

Research At UC Denver Proves Viability Of Waste As Energy Source

A small lighted Christmas tree in a UC Denver laboratory proves the practicality of a novel renewable energy source, and points to its enormous potential.

Jason Ren, an assistant professor of civil engineering, calls it "bug power" referring to the millions of bacteria that help generate electricity from wastewater. The process creates two desirable byproducts.

"Those bacteria are able to consume the waste and produce electricity as well as clean water," Ren said.

Bacteria in the microbial fuel cells essentially eat the waste and give off electrons in the process. Those electrons are then captured by a graphite brush. Also, Ren recently discovered that salt water could be turned to fresh water as a third, simultaneous function.

"Electricity on one side, treating wastewater on the other side, while desalinating sea water in the middle," Ren said, pointing to a small three-chambered reactor.

"I think it's pretty promising," said Jae-Do Park, an assistant professor of electrical engineering. He is working to make the electricity functional.

"To harvest the energy from the fuel cell in the most efficient way, and at the same time to form that power from the fuel cell into a usable shape," Park said.

The glowing LED lights on the laboratory Christmas tree are proof that it's possible to turn poop into power using bacteria. The microbial fuel cell research is gaining attention and from high places. The Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Navy have both provided grants to help advance the technology and its applications.