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Environ Sci Technol. 2008 May 1;42(9):3401-6.

Hydrogen production in a single chamber microbial electrolysis cell lacking a membrane.

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Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania 16802, USA.


Hydrogen gas can be produced by electrohydrogenesis in microbial electrolysis cells (MECs) at greater yields than fermentation and at greater energy efficiencies than water electrolysis. It has been assumed that a membrane is needed in an MEC to avoid hydrogen losses due to bacterial consumption of the product gas. However, high cathodic hydrogen recoveries (78 +/- 1% to 96 +/- 1%) were achieved in an MEC despite the absence of a membrane between the electrodes (applied voltages of 0.3 < E(ap) < 0.8 V; 7.5 mS/cm solution conductivity). Through the use of a membrane-less system, a graphite fiber brush anode, and close electrode spacing, hydrogen production rates reached a maximum of 3.12 +/- 0.02 m3 H2/m3 reactor per day (292 +/- 1 A/m3) at an applied voltage of E(ap) = 0.8 V. This production rate is more than double that obtained in previous MEC studies. The energy efficiency relative to the electrical input decreased with applied voltage from 406 +/- 6% (E(ap) = 0.3 V) to 194 +/- 2% (E(ap) = 0.8 V). Overall energy efficiency relative to both E(ap) and energy of the substrate averaged 78 +/- 4%, with a maximum of 86 +/- 2% (1.02 +/- 0.05 m3 H2/m3 day, E(ap) = 0.4 V). At E(ap) = 0.2 V, the hydrogen recovery substantially decreased, and methane concentrations increased from an average of 1.9 +/- 1.3% (E(ap) = 0.3-0.8 V) to 28 +/- 0% of the gas, due to the long cycle time of the reactor. Increasing the solution conductivity to 20 mS/ cm increased hydrogen production rates for E(ap) = 0.3-0.6 V, but consistent reactor performance could not be obtained in the high conductivity solution at E(ap) > 0.6 V. These results demonstrate that high hydrogen recovery and production rates are possible in a single chamber MEC without a membrane, potentially reducing the costs of these systems and allowing for new and simpler designs.

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