Microbial Fuel Cells under Extreme Salinity
Monzon del Olmo, Oihane
Doctor of Philosophy
I developed a Microbial Fuel Cell (MFC) that unprecedentedly works (i.e., produces electricity) under extreme salinity (≈ 100 g/L NaCl). Many industries, such as oil and gas extraction, generate hypersaline wastewaters with high organic strength, accounting for about 5% of worldwide generated effluents, which represent a major challenge for pollution control and resource recovery. This study assesses the potential for microbial fuel cells (MFCs) to treat such wastewaters and generate electricity under extreme saline conditions. Specifically, the focus is on the feasibility to treat hypersaline wastewater generated by the emerging unconventional oil and gas industry (hydraulic fracturing) and so, with mean salinity of 100 g/L NaCl (3-fold higher than sea water). The success of this novel technology strongly depends on finding a competent and resilient microbial community that can degrade the waste under extreme saline conditions and be able to use the anode as their terminal electron acceptor (exoelectrogenic capability). I demonstrated that MFCs can produce electricity at extremely high salinity (up to 250 g/l NaCl) with a power production of 71mW/m2. Pyrosequencing analysis of the anode population showed the predominance of Halanaerobium spp. (85%), which has been found in shale formations and oil reservoirs. Promoting Quorum sensing (QS, cell to cell communication between bacteria to control gene expression) was used as strategy to increase the attachment of bacteria to the anode and thus improve the MFC performance. Results show that the power output can be bolstered by adding 100nM of quinolone signal with an increase in power density of 30%, for the first time showing QS in Halanaerobium extremophiles. To make this technology closer to market applications, experiments with real wastewaters were also carried out. A sample of produced wastewater from Barnet Shale, Texas (86 g/L NaCl) produced electricity when fed in an MFC, leading to my discovery of another predominant electroactive and halophile specie in the anode, Marinobacter hydrocarbonoclasticus, which is known for its extraordinary biodegradation capabilities. These findings suggest the potential of the MFC technology to treat hypersaline high-strength wastewaters while producing electricity, a result which would alleviate a major economic and environmental challenge for the oil and gas industry. In addition, this research represents a promising start overall in advancing biological treatment of saline wastewaters in other contexts, which is a largely unexploited field.
Energy production; quorum sensing; saline wastewater; Halanaerobium; Marinobacter