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Naval Research Laboratory Advances Green Technologies

120905 N JF840 006

 

Naval Research Laboratory’s (NRL) benthic microbial fuel cell (BMFC) extracts electricity from the sea floor using the natural decomposition process of sediment. Most current scientific sensors in the marine environment are battery-powered, but the BMFC offers an attractive alternative to a wide range of sensors presently powered by batteries. The BMFC is a maintenance-free, non-depleting power supply because of the constant supply of its own fuel from the oxidization of environmental processes and constant rejuvenation of its microbial electrode catalysts.

Applications for this technology include marine-deployed naval and scientific instruments and autonomous vehicles. A potential future use of the BMFC could be at wastewater treatment plants which require huge amounts of electricity to treat wastewater. The BMFC, in its natural use of decomposition of matter to turn sediment into energy, could be used to reduce the dependence of wastewater treatment plants on electricity, thus creating a “cleaner” way to treat waste by becoming its own source for electricity. Further possibilities include extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to generate fuel in its place, cleaning up the environment in the process.

Dr. Lenny Tender, the inventor of the BMFC, compares the technology’s potential infinite energy source to a windmill, calling it "an energy harvester.” Utilizing the oxidation of organic matter in sediment with oxygen in overlying water, the BMFC operates on the bottom of the marine environment, offering a persistent power supply for marine-deployed applications. Ocean floor sediment is a potent fuel source that decomposes into glucose, which is a precursor for petroleum. The BMFC harnesses this decomposition process to provide an uninterrupted power supply when a long duration sensor is a must, and can be used to power hard-to-access sensors and high-density sensor arrays for which the cost of battery replacement is high.

Another example of NRL’s environmentally friendly technical expertise is the development of materials that absorb toxic gases or liquids and convert the toxic compounds into nontoxic compounds. In one application, the technology consists of catalytic self-decontaminating materials, and in another it is for reactive and catalytic air purification. In each application, conversion is accomplished as a result of the interaction of light or electric current when applied to the materials.

With truly environmentally friendly technologies, reusability/sustainability is essential; and, in either of these applications, the mechanism of conversion is inexhaustible. The materials can be modified to target different compounds and formatted to meet a specific application, such as protective clothing or for air purification systems. Poor quality air has been shown to be a contributing factor to some forms of cancer, respiratory problems, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and other pulmonary and allergy-based illnesses. Exposure to volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as those emitted by fuels, cleaning agents, paint, car emissions, etc., can increase the likelihood of sick building syndrome (nausea, fatigue, headaches, etc.), and some can, in high concentrations, result in liver damage.

Advantages of the NRL materials include stability over varying chemical conditions, temperature ranges (up to 150°C or 302°F) and changing humidity levels. Potential products include catalytic surface coatings, fabrics, chemical protective clothing and masks, self-decontaminating hardware, catalytic membranes, and catalytic air filters.

As the full-spectrum corporate laboratory for the Navy and Marine Corps, the Naval Research Laboratory also explores sustainable technologies that are nontoxic to the environment and of benefit the warfighter, with the potential to transition to the general public. For more information on these technologies, please contact the Technology Transfer Office at the Naval Research Laboratory at rita.manak@nrl.navy.mil or 202-767-3083.

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