Research puts wastewater to work, as a source of both water and electricity

Jun 14, 2021

ST LOUIS -- Washington University researchers have developed a filter that treats wastewater and also generates electricity -- an advance that could reshape energy use at treatment plants.

The new system uses bacteria as a "bio-catalyst" to produce an electric charge while breaking down organic material otherwise seen as waste. The findings from the lab of Zhen He, a professor of energy, environmental and chemical engineering, were detailed in this month's cover story for the academic journal Environmental Science: Water Research & Technology.

The research fits into a growing set of technologies that push back against the notion of wastewater as waste, and look instead to put it to beneficial use. The hope is that the Washington U. technology could eventually be used to reduce—if not reverse—the massive energy footprint of wastewater treatment, which, combined with drinking water systems, uses 3% to 4% of all energy consumed in the U.S.

"It's an energy-intensive process," said He in a recent interview with the Post-Dispatch. "And energy always means money."

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