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Student tries to capture the power of sewage


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Student Tries to Capture the Power of Sewage

By Lori Aratani

By Lori Aratani

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON It started with the mud.

Icky, sludgy, smelly mud from the depths of the Potomac. At age 13, Sikandar

Porter-Gill became fascinated with alternative fuel sources and wanted to

see whether he could harness the bacteria in mud from the river to generate


His "mud battery" was a success. Now, two years later, Sikandar has moved on

to bigger things: experimenting with ways to turn sewage into power. Yes,

that's right, sewage.

Sikandar, 15, recently presented the findings of two years of

experimentation to officials with the Washington Suburban Sanitary

Commission's Seneca wastewater treatment plant in Germantown, Md. - people

who are always looking for ways to do smarter things with sewage.

Dressed in dark slacks, a blue shirt and blue-checked tie, Sikandar

nervously fired up his PowerPoint presentation.

"My experiment is called 'Improvement of a Single-Chamber Microbial Fuel

Cell Utilizing a Novel Concept of a Hydrophobic Coating at the Cathode and

the Incorporation of Graphite Granules at the Anode Electrode,' " he said



Translation? Sikandar, a sophomore at Gaithersburg High School, has spent

the past two years trying to develop a cheaper, more efficient microbial

fuel cell. The cell is used by scientists to harness the chemical reaction

that occurs when bacteria digest the organic matter in sewage. That process

produces small electrical charges, which are captured for power.

"I wanted to find a cost-effective way to produce (microbial fuel cells) and

then have them make more power," Sikandar said. The cells and sewage are a

perfect combination, because they both are "harnessing a process that's

already going on in nature."

As part of that effort, Sikandar, whose parents are molecular biologists,

experimented with membranes and coatings that are built into the microbial

fuel cell. He thinks his biggest breakthrough this time is using graphite

granules, which act as the electrode in the single-chamber microbial fuel



As a freshman, he had built a two-chamber microbial fuel cell but found that

he could generate 19 percent more power from the single-chamber setup,

despite using less sewage.

"He just keeps progressing," said his mother, Patricia Porter-Gill, who

remembers donning rubber boots to dig mud out of the Potomac for the first


Officials with the sanitary commission were impressed.

"It's a great experiment that has a lot of potential," said Sam Amad,

manager of the Germantown treatment center.

The idea of using sewage to generate electricity has been around since the

early 1900s, but the science has only taken off in recent years. The

breakthrough came when scientists discovered that it is possible to generate

electricity without having to use chemicals in the process.


In researching his project, Sikandar consulted with Bruce Logan, professor

of environmental engineering at Pennsylvania State University, a leader in

the field of microbial fuel cell research. Work on microbial fuel cells is

also being done at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

As Sikandar concluded his presentation, members of the audience asked to see

models of his work, which he keeps in a shoebox with a green lid.

Employees gathered around him, asking about coatings and the merits of

different methods of filling the fuel cell with wastewater.

"At first, I didn't quite understand what he was doing," said Jorge Tello, a

senior plant operator. "But it looks very promising. We're very impressed."


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