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Performance and community structure dynamics of microbial electrolysis cells operated on multiple complex feedstocks...

by Scott Satinover, Miguel Rodriguez Jr, Maria Campa, Terry C Hazen, Abhijeet P Borole
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Biotechnology for Biofuels
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Background: Microbial electrolysis is a promising technology for converting aqueous wastes into hydrogen. However, substrate adaptability is an important feature, seldom documented in microbial electrolysis cells (MECs). In addition, the correlation between substrate composition and community structure has not been well established. This study used an MEC capable of producing over 10 L/L-day of hydrogen from a switchgrass-derived bio-oil aqueous phase and investigated four additional substrates, tested in sequence on a mature biofilm. The additional substrates included a red oak-derived bio-oil aqueous phase, a corn stover fermentation product, a mixture of phenol and acetate, and acetate alone.

Results: The MECs fed with the corn stover fermentation product resulted in the highest performance among the complex feedstocks, producing an average current density of 7.3 ± 0.51 A/m2, although the acetate fed MECs outperformed complex substrates, producing 12.3 ± 0.01 A/m2. 16S rRNA gene sequencing showed that community structure and community diversity were not predictive of performance, and replicate community structures diverged despite identical inoculum and enrichment procedure. The trends in each replicate, however, were indicative of the influence of the substrates. Geobacter was the most dominant genus across most of the samples tested, but its abundance did not correlate strongly to current density. High-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) showed that acetic acid accumulated during open circuit conditions when MECs were fed with complex feedstocks and was quickly degraded once closed circuit conditions were applied. The largest net acetic acid removal rate occurred when MECs were fed with red oak bio-oil aqueous phase, consuming 2.93 ± 0.00 g/L-day. Principal component analysis found that MEC performance metrics such as current density, hydrogen productivity, and chemical oxygen demand removal were closely correlated. Net acetic acid removal was also found to correlate with performance. However, no bacterial genus appeared to correlated to these performance metrics strongly, and the analysis suggested that less than 70% of the variance was accounted for by the two components.

Conclusions: This study demonstrates the robustness of microbial communities to adapt to a range of feedstocks and conditions without relying on specific species, delivering high hydrogen productivities despite differences in community structure. The results indicate that functional adaptation may play a larger role in performance than community composition. Further investigation of the roles each microbe plays in these communities will help MECs to become integral in the 21st-century bioeconomy to produce zero-emission fuels.