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Microbial fuel cells (MFC) and microbial electrolysis cells are electrical devices that treat water using microorganisms and convert soluble organic matter into electricity and hydrogen, respectively. Emerging cellulosic biorefineries are expected to use large amounts of water during production of ethanol. Pretreatment of cellulosic biomass results in production of fermentation inhibitors which accumulate in process water and make the water recycle process difficult. Use of MFCs to remove the inhibitory sugar and lignin degradation products from recycle water is investigated in this study.


Use of an MFC to reduce the levels of furfural, 5-hydroxymethylfurfural, vanillic acid, 4-hydroxybenzaldehyde and 4-hydroxyacetophenone while simultaneously producing electricity is demonstrated here. An integrated MFC design approach was used which resulted in high power densities for the MFC, reaching up to 3700 mW/m2 (356 W/m3 net anode volume) and a coulombic efficiency of 69%. The exoelectrogenic microbial consortium enriched in the anode was characterized using a 16S rRNA clone library method. A unique exoelectrogenic microbial consortium dominated by δ-Proteobacteria (50%), along with β-Proteobacteria (28%), α-Proteobacteria (14%), γ-Proteobacteria (6%) and others was identified. The consortium demonstrated broad substrate specificity, ability to handle high inhibitor concentrations (5 to 20 mM) with near complete removal, while maintaining long-term stability with respect to power production.


Use of MFCs for removing fermentation inhibitors has implications for: 1) enabling higher ethanol yields at high biomass loading in cellulosic ethanol biorefineries, 2) improved water recycle and 3) electricity production up to 25% of total biorefinery power needs.

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