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Catalyst electrodes for high power performance microbial fuel cells

Primary Supervisor: Dr Shangfeng Du, School of Chemical Engineering

Secondary supervisor: Dr. Yun Fan

PhD project title: Catalyst electrodes for high power performance microbial fuel cells

University of Registration: University of Birmingham

Project outline:

A microbial fuel cell (MFC) is a device that converts chemical energy to electrical energy by the action of microorganisms (Four ways microbial fuel cells might revolutionise electricity production in the future and Bioresources and Bioprocessing 3 (2016), 38). The electrochemical cell is constructed using either a bioanode and/or a biocathode. MFCs contain a membrane to separate the compartments of the anode (where oxidation takes place) and the cathode (where reduction takes place). The electrons produced during oxidation are transferred directly to an electrode or to a redox mediator species. It can be used in water treatment to harvest energy utilizing anaerobic digestion, or as biosensors for the accurate and quick detection of toxic compounds and other contaminants for water quality monitoring. However, MFCs still encounter several bottlenecks in their practical application and scale-up. Among the main drawbacks, the limitation of electron transfer between microorganism and electrodes is considered as most challenging. It is a key aspect in the improvement of MFC performance.

This PhD project at the University of Birmingham will combine recent fuel cell developments in the Centre for Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Research, the largest fuel cell groups in the UK ( and research strength in microorganism in the School of Biosciences (, to develop high power performance MFCs with potential to be used for power generating from waste water and biosensors for toxicity detection in water quality monitoring.

The project will focus on the following three objectives:

  1. To evaluate detection efficiency of potent candidate microbes (e.g., geobacter sulfurreducens) on toxicants (e.g. formaldehyde and heavy metals). This will be done via analysing microbial growth rate, generation time and high-throughput screening of potent biocatalysts.
  2. To elucidate effects of microbial behaviour within MFC electrodes by monitoring biofilm formation on various substrates including graphite felt, stainless steel and Ni metal meshes, and novel 3D ordered substrates from 1D nanostructure arrays recently developed in principal supervisor's group. This will be the focus of this research.
  3. To evaluate and establish structure-sensing property relationships of the obtained biocatalyst electrodes in MFCs. The biocatalyst electrodes will be evaluated as both cathodes and anodes in single chamber MFCs, using different electrochemical measurement and fuel cell testing techniques.

Strategic Research Priority: Renewable Resources and Clean Growth: Industrial Biotechnology & Understanding the Rules of Life: Microbiology

Techniques that will be undertaken during the project:

The student will be trained with all these techniques and former experience is not mandatory, in particular in electrochemical measurement related. The student will also be encouraged to attend the Joint European Summer School in year 1 of PhD study ( where all fundamental knowledge on fuel cells will be taught.


  • Bacterial culture, growth analysis and biocatalyst screening
  • High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) to determine the toxicant in analytes.
  • Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) and Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM) analyses to understand the morphology and structure of microbes and their distribution on electrode substrates.
  • Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM) analysis to estimate the adhesion force between microbes and substrates.

MFC test:

  • Polarisation curve to evaluate the current density, voltage and power output of the MFC sensors to define their performance.
  • Cyclic voltammetry (CV) and linear sweep voltammetry (LSV) to evaluate the metabolism kinetic rate of the electrodes.
  • Electrochemical impedance spectroscopy (EIS) analysis to define the conductivity, charger and mass transfer resistance of electrodes.
  • Amperometric response to evaluate the stability of sensors in toxicity detection.

Contact: Dr Shangfeng Du, University of Birmingham