Powering the future: microbial fuel cells

In remote areas people and technology still need power. A team of UWE Bristol engineers are harnessing the innovative potential of microbial fuel cells, using unusual biological energy sources.

Small and mighty

They may be microscopic, but microbes may hold the potential for off-grid power sources. A team of UWE Bristol researchers have developed a cutting-edge fuel cell, which runs off waste products that no one wants. By using dirty water and urine as fuel, the ‘microbial fuel cells’ (MFCs) solve two problems in one; cleaning up dangerous waste and providing electricity.

"We are so excited by this technology", says Professor Ioannis Ieropoulos. "The fuel cells offer hope to people who lack proper sanitation and basic electricity. We’re aiming to trial this technology in refugee camps and developing countries in the near future". 


The Microbial Fuel Cell (MFC) is an electrical circuit that is driven by microbes such as bacteria. Two compartments are separated by a membrane; the microbes sit on one side and use dirty water like urine as a food source. In doing so, they produce electrons in a chemical reaction, which flow into the clean compartment. This flow of electrons creates electricity, with the amazing by-product of a clean water source. 

"It’s important to us to raise public awareness of any new technology and how it could be used", says Professor Ieropoulos. "We've been trialling the potential of pee-power in some unusual locations, including Glastonbury Festival, the UWE Bristol campus, and now in schools (Robots versus Animals) around Bristol."

Robots on the go

As well as collaborating with microbiological researchers like Professor John Greenman, the team is also developing MFCs as a power source for robots in the Bristol Robotics Laboratory at UWE Bristol. A huge stalling point for robotic innovation is their electricity supply - currently robots need energy intensive batteries or mains power. The MFCs create the potential for robots to re-fuel themselves in remote locations, using waste materials.

"Every day we’re stepping into the unknown” says Professor Ieropoulos. "By working across so many disciplines, we continuously learn new things. That for me is the excitement of engineering solutions to real world problems.”