Bioelectrochemical production of hydrogen in an innovative pressure-retarded osmosis/microbial electrolysis cell system: experiments and modeling
Background While microbial electrolysis cells (MECs) can simultaneously produce bioelectrochemical hydrogen and treat wastewater, they consume considerable energy to overcome the unfavorable thermodynamics, which is not sustainable and economically feasible in practical applications. This study presents a proof-of-concept system in which hydrogen can be produced in an MEC powered by theoretically predicated energy from pressure-retarded osmosis (PRO). The system consists of a PRO unit that extracts high-quality water and generates electricity from water osmosis, and an MEC for organic removal and hydrogen production. The feasibility of the system was demonstrated using simulated PRO performance (in terms of energy production and effluent quality) and experimental MEC results (e.g., hydrogen production and organic removal). Results The PRO and MEC models were proven to be valid. The model predicted that the PRO unit could produce 485 mL of clean water and 579 J of energy with 600 mL of draw solution (0.8 M of NaCl). The amount of the predicated energy was applied to the MEC by a power supply, which drove the MEC to remove 93.7 % of the organic compounds and produce 32.8 mL of H2 experimentally. Increasing the PRO influent volume and draw concentration could produce more energy for the MEC operation, and correspondingly increase the MEC hydraulic retention time (HRT) and total hydrogen production. The models predicted that at an external voltage of 0.9 V, the MEC energy consumption reached the maximum PRO energy production. With a higher external voltage, the MEC energy consumption would exceed the PRO energy production, leading to negative effects on both organic removal and hydrogen production. Conclusions The PRO-MEC system holds great promise in addressing water-energy nexus through organic removal, hydrogen production, and water recovery: (1) the PRO unit can reduce the volume of wastewater and extract clean water; (2) the PRO effluents can be further treated by the MEC; and (3) the osmotic energy harvested from the PRO unit can be applied to the MEC for sustainable bioelectrochemical hydrogen production.