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Environ Sci Technol. 2010 May 1;44(9):3629-37. doi: 10.1021/es100125h.

Life cycle assessment of high-rate anaerobic treatment, microbial fuel cells, and microbial electrolysis cells.

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Advanced Water Management Centre, The University of Queensland, St. Lucia 4072, Australia.


Existing wastewater treatment options are generally perceived as energy intensive and environmentally unfriendly. Much attention has been focused on two new approaches in the past years, (i) microbial fuel cells and (ii) microbial electrolysis cells, which directly generate electrical current or chemical products, respectively, during wastewater treatment. These systems are commonly denominated as bioelectrochemical systems, and a multitude of claims have been made in the past regarding the environmental impact of these treatment options. However, an in-depth study backing these claims has not been performed. Here, we have conducted a life cycle assessment (LCA) to compare the environmental impact of three industrial wastewater treatment options, (i) anaerobic treatment with biogas generation, (ii) a microbial fuel cell treatment, with direct electricity generation, and (iii) a microbial electrolysis cell, with hydrogen peroxide production. Our analysis showed that a microbial fuel cell does not provide a significant environmental benefit relative to the "conventional" anaerobic treatment option. However, a microbial electrolysis cell provides significant environmental benefits through the displacement of chemical production by conventional means. Provided that the target conversion level of 1000 A.m(-3) can be met, the decrease in greenhouse gas emissions and other environmentally harmful emissions (e.g., aromatic hydrocarbons) of the microbial electrolysis cell will be a key driver for the development of an industrial standard for this technology. Evidently, this assessment is highly dependent on the underlying assumptions, such as the used reactor materials and target performance. This provides a challenge and an opportunity for researchers in the field to select and develop appropriate and environmentally benign materials of construction, as well as demonstrate the required 1000 A.m(-3) performance at pilot and full scale.

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