The first demonstration of a microbial fuel cell as a viable power supply: Powering a meteorological buoy

Document Type


Date of Original Version



Here we describe the first demonstration of a microbial fuel cell (MFC) as a practical alternative to batteries for a low-power consuming application. The specific application reported is a meteorological buoy (ca. 18-mW average consumption) that measures air temperature, pressure, relative humidity, and water temperature, and that is configured for real-time line-of-sight RF telemetry of data. The specific type of MFC utilized in this demonstration is the benthic microbial fuel cell (BMFC). The BMFC operates on the bottom of marine environments, where it oxidizes organic matter residing in oxygen depleted sediment with oxygen in overlying water. It is maintenance free, does not deplete (i.e., will run indefinitely), and is sufficiently powerful to operate a wide range of low-power marine-deployed scientific instruments normally powered by batteries. Two prototype BMFCs used to power the buoy are described. The first was deployed in the Potomac River in Washington, DC, USA. It had a mass of 230 kg, a volume of 1.3 m3, and sustained 24 mW (energy equivalent of ca. 16 alkaline D-cells per year at 25 °C). Although not practical due to high cost and extensive in-water manipulation required to deploy, it established the precedence that a fully functional scientific instrument could derive all of its power from a BMFC. It also provided valuable lessons for developing a second, more practical BMFC that was subsequently used to power the buoy in a salt marsh near Tuckerton, NJ, USA. The second version BMFC has a mass of 16 kg, a volume of 0.03 m3, sustains ca. 36 mW (energy equivalent of ca. 26 alkaline D-cells per year at 25 °C), and can be deployed by a single person from a small craft with minimum or no in-water manipulation. This BMFC is being further developed to reduce cost and enable greater power output by electrically connecting multiple units in parallel. Use of this BMFC powering the meteorological buoy highlights the potential impact of BMFCs to enable long term (persistent) operation of durable low-power marine instruments (up to 100 mW average power consumption) far longer than practical by batteries. © 2008 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.

Publication Title

Journal of Power Sources