Waste water re-mediation and power generation using an electrochemical device

Lead Research Organisation: Imperial College London
Department Name: Dept of Chemistry


Thanks to an innovative electrochemical device, this project will add value to organic materials dissolved in waste-water streams by generating electricity upon their electrochemical oxidation. Large amounts of waste water contaminated with
sugars and other high energy organic molecules are currently generated as a result of the industrial activity in sectors including food manufacturers, beverage production, breweries, wineries or biofuel generators. These water streams represent an increasing problem for those industries as expensive and slow water cleaning procedures are mandatory prior to municipal disposal. Toxic chemicals and/or and sensitive biological cleaning processes deliver cost ranging 40 USD per ton of water. The system here proposed enables significant carbon dioxide savings and a dramatic drop the energy
requirements for water remediation and related costs.

The current industrial trend is the generation of electricity from biomass utilizing and multi-step process. The fermentation of biomass to biogas and subsequent combustion to generate electricity is an indirect conversion method that leads to an electricity yield below 10%. Nonetheless, this strategy represents a high capital cost and need of delicate operation conditions that require long time periods. Microbial fuel cells can and directly produce electricity from waste-water. However, the use bacteria to oxidise the fuel is linked to similar time-requirements issues and very low production of power
(<2 mW/cm2). Larger power is achieved using expensive catalysts (such as Pt) but, such materials quickly undergo deactivation due to fuel contaminants present in the industrial water streams.

This project will develop the first large power density (15 mW/cm2) fuel cell demonstrator utilizing fuels dissolved in industrial waste-waters. A 10W prototype will be designed along the lines of reducing power consumption required for
waste water treatment while creating clean electricity. As a result of the unique chemistry proposed in this project, this prototype will not only provide with a low-energy water-remediation system, the utilization of organic fuels in waste-water
permits the generation electricity at a cost of about USD0.01/kWh (below existing electricity generation technologies). Unlike other renewable energy sources such as wind or solar suffer which suffer from generation intermittency, this fuel cell
represents a continuous and clean electricity generation that can provide power in applications including grid balancing or peak shaving which enables a higher proportion of green energy technologies.

The range of envisioned applications here described cannot be found in any other device. The tasks to be carried during the present project will be: i) design and manufacture 10W prototype; ii) field testing as a function of the water stream
composition paying exceptional emphasis in ensuring long term durability.

Planned Impact

Environmental: The project will also support the Government's strategy to reduce the CO2 emissions by 2050 by 80%. It is expected that the introduction of this new technology can have the potential to support this target by reducing the emissions due to water treatment and also providing a new source of CO2 free electrical energy. The deployment of clean energy generators will help the UK meet the challenge of handling projected energy needs-including addressing climate change by integrating more energy from renewable sources. The outcome of this project will be large scale economic, social and environmental benefits for the UK. In general, the development of a more economical and fast system for water remediation that generates electricity from biosourced fuels serves to the wellness improvement of all the society by providing clean water and protecting the environment.

From the social point of view, the development of electrochemical water remediation systems based on abundant, low-cost and non-geographically restricted materials, can be considered a powerful source of wealth. Due to their modular character, this new fuel cell system could inject power enabling applications including grid-support. Additionally, compared with the current utilization toxic chemicals in water cleaning, our system increases the safety of the plants. Similarly, compared to biological water treatments, fuel cell modular design will allow for a lower environmental footprint, lower
installation cost and shorter treatment times prior water disposal.

Economic: This project could be disruptive to the waste water treatment sector, and particularly to those businesses producing waste water streams with high CODs (Chemical Oxygen Demand). For instance the glycerol market (by-product from biodiesel industry) is expected to grow to 2.5 billion USD by 2020. Waste water from the beer brewing industry poses another vast market creating 2 billion hectolitres p.a. waste water. Using the waste water from the brewery industry would allow generation of up to 1000 GWh of electricity with a net worth of 100 million USD per year, thus substantially reducing energy consumption from other sources and significantly reducing the pressure on municipal waste water treating facilities. This project will develop a durable, efficient, cost-effective, versatile and compact energy generation technology with a high potential for utilization of green energy sources of any kind and not restricted to specific waste-water compositions. Moreover, due to its chemistry, the fuel cell system here proposed will be based on abundant elements which can be
readily manufactured in bulk chemical plants reducing manufacturing costs. These combinations of low cost and customization is not available in other technologies and could form the basis of a strong UK based water remediation and clean electricity generation industry

Finally, unlike solar or wind energy, the device here proposed produces electricity continuously as long as fuel is fed into the system. This characteristic allows for fast response and grid integration without requiring expensive energy storage
(currently above USD500/kWh). This not only results in zero net emission electricity but also saves greenhouse gases associated with the production of water cleaning chemicals.


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Rubio-Garcia J (2018) Hydrogen/manganese hybrid redox flow battery in Journal of Physics: Energy

Description Key findings of this work is that we can utilise relatively low cost electrochemical cells to significantly remediate (>30% decrease in contamination) waste water whilst generating electricity at the same time
Exploitation Route We are in the process of spinning out a company to commercialise the approach developed in this programme.
Sectors Energy,Environment

Description Key findings have been used in support of spinning out the approach to produce a new company, Sweetgen Ltd
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Energy,Environment
Impact Types Societal,Economic

Description Sodium battery project
Amount £166,000 (GBP)
Organisation Shell International Petroleum 
Sector Private
Country United Kingdom
Start 05/2017 
End 09/2019
Description crescendo
Amount € 2,739,602 (EUR)
Funding ID http://www.crescendo-fuelcell.eu 
Organisation European Commission H2020 
Sector Public
Country Belgium
Start 01/2018 
End 12/2020
Description Collaboration with Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Supergen 
Organisation Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Supergen
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution H2FC is the hydrogen and fuel cell supergen. We have presented results at H2FC conferences and as Kucernak is a theme leader the results have been used to set the direction of future research
Collaborator Contribution Allow research to be seen by wider audience.
Impact Presentation of results at H2FC conferences
Start Year 2017
Description Sweetgen Ltd 
Organisation University of Leoben
Country Austria 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Better understanding of catalyst requirements for waste water treatment
Collaborator Contribution Measurement of fuel cell operating on different waste waters
Impact No outcomes yet
Start Year 2016
Description Waste water used to produce electricity in a fuel cell like device 
IP Reference EP3383803 
Protection Patent application published
Year Protection Granted 2018
Licensed Yes
Impact Patent licensed to Sweetgen Ltd
Title Fuel Cell For Wastewater Treatment 
Description The invention provides a method of treating waste comprising the steps of: providing an electrochemical cell comprising a cathode, and an anode; supplying a waste stream comprising an organic compound which is a liquid or dissolved in a solvent and contacting the anode and cathode with the waste stream; electrochemically oxidising the organic compound at the anode; supplying oxygen to the cathode; electrochemically reducing the oxygen at the cathode; wherein the cathode comprises a poison resistant oxygen reduction catalyst. 
IP Reference US2018354819 
Protection Patent application published
Year Protection Granted 2018
Licensed Yes
Impact Patent has been licensed to spinout company "SweetGen"
Description The present invention relates to a method for preparing a catalyst which can be used to catalyse the oxygen reduction reaction (ORR). The invention also provides a catalyst obtained from the method and its use as an electrode, for example, in a galvanic cell, an electrolytic cell or an oxygen sensor. 
IP Reference US2016248099 
Protection Patent application published
Year Protection Granted 2016
Licensed Yes
Impact Approach being used to purue development of new catalyusts as part of European project "Crescendo"
Description The present invention relates to a method for preparing a catalyst which can be used to catalyse the oxygen reduction reaction (ORR). The invention also provides a catalyst obtained from the method and its use as an electrode, for example, in a galvanic cell, an electrolytic cell or an oxygen sensor. 
IP Reference WO2015049318 
Protection Patent application published
Year Protection Granted 2015
Licensed Yes
Impact Used to manufacture catalysts and spawned other research
Company Name Sweetgen Ltd 
Description Sweetgen is developing approaches to remediate waste water 
Year Established 2016 
Impact None at the moment
Description Renewable Fuel Generation and Energy Storage 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Renewable Fuel Generation and Energy Storage Symposium
2nd November 2018
Molecular Sciences Research Hub, White City Campus, Imperial College London
09:00 - 09:30 Arrival and light breakfast
09:30 - 09:40 Introductory remarks: Dr. Andreas Kafizas
MATERIALS Chair: Dr. Franky Bedoya
09:40 - 10:10 Life beyond titania: new materials for solar fuel generation
Prof. Aron Walsh, Department of Materials
10:10 - 10:40 MOF-based composites as bifunctional materials for CO2 capture and photoconversion
Dr. Camille Petit, Department of Chemical Engineering
10:40 - 11:00 Coffee & Poster session
11:00 - 11:30 Photoelectrocatalytic properties of atomically thin transition metal dichalcogenides
Dr. Cecilia Mattevi, Department of Materials
11:30 - 12:00 Lead-acid batteries recycling for the 21st Century
Dr. David Payne, Department of Materials
12:00 - 13:00 Lunch & Poster session
13:00 - 13:30 Measuring the intrinsic catalytic performance of catalysts for fuel cells and electrolysers
Prof. Anthony Kucernak, Department of Chemistry
13:30 - 14:00 Towards a parameter-free theory for electrochemical phenomena at the nanoscale
Dr. Clotilde Cucinotta, Department of Chemistry
14:00 - 14:30 Transient spectroscopic studies of approaches to artificial photosynthesis
Prof. James Durrant, Department of Chemistry
14:30 - 15:00 In-situ ultrafast methods for solar fuels: Can we push efficiencies?
Dr. Ernest Pastor, Department of Chemistry
15:00 - 15:20 Coffee & Poster session
15:20 - 15:50 Upscaling battery technology: From material science to pack engineering
Dr. Billy Wu, Dyson School of Design Engineering
15:50 - 16:20 Electrochemical synthesis of fuels and valuable chemicals: from fundamental catalysis studies to real devices
Dr. Ifan Stephens, Department of Materials
16:20 - 16:50 (Photo-)electrochemical reactors for energy conversion and storage
Prof. Geoff Kelsall, Department of Chemical Engineering
16:50 - 17:20 Renewable gas from offshore wind and offshore electrolysers
Dr. Malte Jansen, Centre for Environmental Policy
PANEL DISUSSION Chair: Prof. Geoff Kelsall
17:20 - 18:00 Question for the panellists: Learning from the presentations today, what disruptive technologies and collaborative projects would you like to see at ICL?
Panellists: Prof. James Durrant (Chemistry), Prof. Richard Templer (Chemistry & Grantham Institute), Dr. Judith Cherni (Centre for Environmental Policy) and Dr. Sam Coper (Dyson School of Design Engineering).
18:00 - 18:10 Closing remarks and prize-giving: Dr. Andreas Kafizas
18:10 - Late Wine and mingling
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description Stand demonstrating technology at "The great exhibition rd festival", 2019 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Stand at the "Great Exhibition Rd festival in June 2019
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.greatexhibitionroadfestival.co.uk/whats-on/