Like any new technology, PMFCs face a number of challenges; for instance, they need a substrate that simultaneously favors plant growth and energy transfer -- two goals that are sometimes at odds. Differences in pH between the two cell halves, for example, can bring about loss of electrical potential, as ions "short" across the membrane to achieve chemical balance [source: Helder et al.].
If engineers can work out the kinks, though, PMFCs could hold both vast and varied potential. It all comes down to how much energy they can produce. According to a 2008 estimate, that magic number comes in at around 21 gigajoules (5,800 kilowatt-hours) per hectare (2.5 acres) each year [source: Strik et al.]. More recent research has estimated that number could go as high 1,000 gigajoules per hectare [source: Strik et al.]. A few more facts for perspective [sources: BP; European Commission]:
- A barrel of oil contains around 6 gigajoules of chemical energy.
- Europe is home to 13.7 million farmers, with each farm averaging 12 hectares (29.6 acres).
- By comparison, America has 2 million farmers averaging 180 hectares (444.6 acres) each.
Based on these numbers, if 1 percent of U.S. and European farmlands were converted to PMFCs, they would yield a back-of-the-envelope estimate of 34.5 million gigajoules (9.58 billion kilowatt-hours) annually for Europe and 75.6 million gigajoules (20.9 billion kilowatt-hours) annually for America.
By comparison, the 27 European Union countries in 2010 consumed 1,759 million tons of oil equivalent (TOE) in energy, or 74.2 billion gigajoules (20.5 trillion kilowatt-hours). TOE is a standardized unit of international comparison, equal to the energy contained in one ton of petroleum [sources: European Commission; Universcience].
In this simplified scenario, PMFCs provide a drop in a very large energy bucket, but it's a pollution-free drop, and a drop generated from lush landscapes instead of smoke-belching power plants or bird-smashing wind farms.
Moreover, it's just the beginning. Researchers are already working on more efficient waste-gobbling bacteria and, between 2008 and 2012, advances in substrate chemistry more than doubled electrical production in some PMFCs. PlantPower argues that, once perfected, PMFCs could provide as much as 20 percent of Europe's primary energy -- that is, energy derived from untransformed natural resources [source: Øvergaard; PlantPower].
PMFCs must become cheaper and more efficient before they can enjoy wide implementation, but progress is under way. Already, many MFCs save money by manufacturing electrodes from highly conductive carbon cloth rather than precious metals or expensive graphite felt [sources: Deng, Chen and Zhao; Tweed]. As of 2012, it cost $70 to operate a one-cubic-meter setup under laboratory conditions.
When one considers their potential for removing pollutants and for reducing greenhouse gases, who knows? PMFCs could garner enough investor and government interest to become the power plants of the future -- or plant the seed for an even better idea [source: Deng, Chen and Zhao].
Authors Note: How Plant-microbial Fuel Cells Work
If you think about it, building a battery that can run off of bacterial digestive processes brings us one step closer to cyborgs and self-powered machines. The human body relies on gut bacteria to convert food into energy; if we could tap into this process to juice fuel cells, then we might also power bodily implants, such as pacemakers.
Researchers at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts Institute of Technology have already blurred this line, constructing a brain chip powered by glucose, which it harvests from recirculated cerebrospinal fluid [source: Rapoport, Kedzierski and Sarpeshkar]. Can cyberbrains be far behind? (Well, yes, probably).
Just imagine: We could build machines that graze! OK, that might not sound as sexy as ray guns and rocket ships, but such machines could remain active in the field indefinitely without need of a recharge or new batteries. A collection of MFCs could form a makeshift gut, pulling electricity from plant glucose.
Should someone pursue this idea, I hope they will employ PMFCs. I envision herds of white ceramic robots covered in Salvia hispanica, and I ask the question:
Do androids dream of electric Chia Pets?
- Bennetto, H.P. "Electricity Generation by Microorganisms." Biotechnology Education. Vol. 1, no. 4. Page 163. 1990. (Jan. 10, 2013) http://www.ncbe.reading.ac.uk/ncbe/protocols/PRACBIOTECH/PDF/bennetto.pdf
- British Petroleum. "Gigajoules." Glossary. (Jan. 10, 2013) http://www.bp.com/glossaryitemlinks.do?contentId=7066767&alphabetId=7&categoryId=9036141
- Deng, Huan, Zheng Chen and Feng Zhao. "Energy from Plants and Microorganisms: Progress in Plant-Microbial Fuel Cells." ChemSusChem. Vol. 5, no. 6. Page 1006. June 2012. (Jan. 10, 2013) http://www.researchgate.net/publication/51871942_Energy_from_Plants_and_Microorganisms_Progress_in_Plant-Microbial_Fuel_Cells/file/9fcfd4fe35d29c822c.pdf
- De Schamphelaire, Liesje et al. Microbial Fuel Cells Generating Electricity from Rhizodeposits of Rice Plants. Environmental Science & Technology. Vol. 42, no. 8. Page 3053. March 2008.
- Dillow, Clay. "Microbial Fuel Cell Cleans Wastewater, Desalinates Seawater and Generates Power." Popular Science. Aug. 6, 2009. (Jan. 10, 2013) http://www.popsci.com/scitech/article/2009-08/microbial-fuel-cell-cleans-wastewater-desalinates-seawater-and-generates-power
- Doty, Cate. "For Africa, 'Energy from Dirt.'" The New York Times. Nov. 10, 2008. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/11/giving/11AFRICA.html?_r=0
- European Commission. "The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and Agriculture in Europe -- Frequently Asked Questions." June 11, 2012. (Jan. 10, 2013) http://ec.europa.eu/agriculture/faq/index_en.htm
- European Commission. "Consumption of Energy." (Jan. 10, 2013) http://epp.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/statistics_explained/index.php/Consumption_of_energy
- Helder, Marjolein. "Design Criteria for the Plant-Microbial Fuel Cell." Thesis, Wageningen University. Defended Nov. 23, 2012.
- Helder, Marjolein and Nanda Schrama. Personal correspondence. January 2013.
- Helder, M. et al. "New Plant-Growth Medium for Increased Power Output of the Plant-Microbial Fuel Cell." Bioresource Technology. Vol. 104. Page 417. January 2012.
- Hortert, Daniel, et al. "Background." NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Education Homepage. (Jan. 10, 2013) http://education.gsfc.nasa.gov/experimental/all98invProject.Site/Pages/trl/inv2-1.abstract.html
- Ingham, Elaine. "The Soil Food Web." Natural Resources Conservation Service. (Jan. 10, 2013) http://soils.usda.gov/sqi/concepts/soil_biology/soil_food_web.html
- Ko, Vanessa. "Hydrogen Fuel-Cell Cars Look to Overtake Electric Autos." CNN. Nov. 26, 2012. (Jan. 10, 2013) http://edition.cnn.com/2012/11/25/business/eco-hydrogen-fuel-cell-cars/index.html
- LaMonica, Martin. "Hybrid Solar Cell Hits High Efficiency." MIT Technology Review. Sept. 5, 2012. (Jan. 10, 2013) http://www.technologyreview.com/view/429099/hybrid-solar-cell-hits-high-efficiency/
- Miller, Brian. "Wetlands and Water Quality." Purdue University. (Jan. 10, 2013) http://www.extension.purdue.edu/extmedia/WQ/WQ-10.html
- Miyamoto, Kazuhisa, ed. "Renewable Biological Systems for Alternative Sustainable Energy Production." United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. 1997. (Jan. 10, 2013) http://www.fao.org/docrep/W7241E/W7241E00.htm
- The New York Times. "Biofuels." June 17, 2011. (Jan. 10, 2013) http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/business/energy-environment/biofuels/index.html
- Office of Naval Research. "Microbial Fuel Cells." (Jan. 10, 2013) http://www.onr.navy.mil/en/Media-Center/Fact-Sheets/Microbial-Fuel-Cell.aspx
- Øvergaard, Sara. "Issue Paper: Definition of Primary and Secondary Energy." September 2008. (Jan. 10, 2013) http://unstats.un.org/unsd/envaccounting/londongroup/meeting13/LG13_12a.pdf
- The Oxford Dictionary of Science. Alan Isaacs, John Daintith and Elizabeth Martin, eds. Oxford University Press, 2003.
- PlantPower. "Living Plants in Microbial Fuel Cells for Clean, Renewable, Sustainable, Efficient In-Situ Bioenergy Production." 2012. (Jan. 10, 2013) http://www.plantpower.eu/
- Rabaey, Korneel and Willy Verstraete. "Microbial Fuel Cells: Novel Biotechnology for Energy Generation." TRENDS in Biotechnology. Vol.23, no.6. Page 291. June 2005. (Jan. 10, 2013) http://web.mit.edu/pweigele/www/SoBEI/Info_files/Rabaey%202005%20Trends%20Biotechnol.pdf
- Seegren, Phil, Brendan Cowcer and Christopher Romeo. "Comparative Analysis of RuBisCo Expression and Protein Levels in C3 and C4 plants." (Jan. 10, 2013) http://csmbio.csm.jmu.edu/bioweb/bio480/fall2011/winning/Rubiscoooo/Intro.htm
- Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC). "C3 and C4 Plants." (Jan. 10, 2013) http://www.serc.si.edu/labs/co2/c3_c4_plants.aspx
- Strik, David P.B.T.B., et al. "Microbial Solar Cells: Applying Photosynthetic and Electrochemically Active Organisms. Trends in Biotechnology." Vol. 29, no. 1. Page 41. January 2011.
- Strik, David P.B.T.B., et al. "Green Electricity Production with Living Plants and Bacteria in a Fuel Cell." International Journal of Energy Research. Vol. 32, no. 9. Page 870. July 2008. (Jan. 10, 2013) http://www.microbialfuelcell.org/publications/wur/strik_et%20al_2008.pdf
- Tenenbaum, David. "Food vs. Fuel: Diversion of Crops Could Cause More Hunger. Environmental Health Perspectives." Vol. 116, no. 6. Page A254. June 2008. (Jan. 10, 2013) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2430252/pdf/ehp0116-a00254.pdf
- Tweed, Katherine. "Fuel Cell Treats Wastewater and Harvests Energy." Scientific American. July 16, 2012. (Jan. 10, 2013) http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=microbial-fuel-cell-treats-wastewater-harvests-energy
- Universcience. "Ton of Oil Equivalent (TOE)." Glossary. (Jan. 10, 2013) http://www.universcience.fr/en/lexique/definition/c/1248117918831/-/p/1239026795199/lang/an
- Williams, Caroline. "Grow Your Own Electricity." New Scientist. Feb. 16, 2012.
- Wüst, Christian. "BMW's Hydrogen 7: Not as Green as it Seems." Der Spiegel. Nov. 17, 2006. (Jan. 10, 2013) http://www.spiegel.de/international/spiegel/bmw-s-hydrogen-7-not-as-green-as-it-seems-a-448648.html