The Power of Waste: application of Microbial Fuel Cell Technology in Livestock Agriculture

How can researchers come together to explore the use of Microbial Fuel Cell (MFC) technology to utilise waste in innovative ways?

Farming has undeniable environmental costs. A recent article in The Guardian, reported how livestock farming consumes much more water than crop farming, with vegetables at the low end of the scale using 322 litres per kg and beef at the other extreme, using 15,415 l/kg. Aside from using water, farming also pollutes it with use of inputs such as chemicals in fertilizers, medicines and pesticides. Output is also problematic with greenhouse gas emissions, tonnes of animal waste at the farm and animal blood in abattoirs, for example.

The increasing awareness of these environmental costs and their links to climate change, soil degradation, biodiversity loss and other environmental challenges has driven the push to find sustainable and more environmentally friendly ways of farming. This push could not be more pressing domestically, given the changing landscape of British livestock farming in a post-Brexit context. Beef, dairy and sheep farmers – particularly smallholders – will face an extremely trying time as they struggle to compete with an influx of animal food produced more cheaply and to lower quality standards, whilst working in a system that demands growing productivity but ties rewards to environmental stewardship.

In turn, the push for greener livestock agriculture is equally pressing outside the UK, particularly in low and middle-income countries (LMICs) where the increase in the demand for food of animal origin has driven a marked growth in its production –the so called “livestock revolution” (Delgado, C., 1999). Along with the promise of better nutrition, improved food security and increased growth in rural economies, the livestock revolution comes with an environmental price that developing countries will find harsher and harder to pay. As livestock farming is increasingly seen as environmentally unaffordable, the livelihoods of small and subsistence farmers in LMICs will face severe challenges, including those encapsulated in the 17 UN sustainable development goals, particularly around poverty (1), hunger (2), clean water (6), and clean energy (7) –although challenges 12 on responsible production, 13 on climate action and 15 on life on land are also relevant.

What did the project involve? 

This project sought to explore the use of Microbial Fuel Cell (MFC) technology to utilise waste in innovative ways. An MFC is a biochemical system where a process of microbial metabolism, fuelled by organic waste of different sorts, is used to generate electricity.

This project believed farms and abattoirs were promising locations to develop MFC applications. From slurry management and wastewater management to animal blood and waste milk disposal, MFCs applications could have the potential to dramatically improve the environmental footprint of livestock farming whilst lowering the cost of production and –even better– powering self-sufficient alternative energy production systems.

To explore this, this project formed a brainstorm session at the Bristol Veterinary School (BVS) Langford campus with Professor Ieropoulos as the key speaker and guests from the BVS (responsible for the abattoir and for the development of Wyndhurst farm), other UoB schools (crop and livestock researchers in Biological Sciences, the BRU in Nutrition, Diet and Lifestyle) and research centres (Brigstow, EBI, Cabot), Rothamsted Research and CIEL.

After the presentation by the key speaker and an initial Q&A session, participants with ongoing research projects on farming in LMICs gave shorter presentations and an extended Q&A session will allow participants to react to the presentations and throw ideas on the table. There was then a detailed visit to the farm and abattoir to allow the participants to ask questions and form further ideas for MFC applications. After lunch the group reconvened and coalesced into smaller groups around some of the ideas in order to scope them in finer detail.

Who are the team and what do they bring?

  • Maria Paula Escobar-Tello (Farm Animal Science, University of Bristol) is a researcher of environmental geography and explores tensions and intersections between livestock farming and the environment drawing from scholarship on regulation as governance, more-than-human geographies, political ecology and the politics of materiality.
  • Ioannis Ieropoulos (University of West England) is Director of the Bristol BioEnergy Centre at the Bristol Robotics Centre and has pioneered Microbial Fuel Cell (MFC) Technology to utilise waste in innovative ways.

What were the results?

The project resulted in the event: The Power of Waste: Applications of microbial fuel cell technology in livestock agriculture.

The expected outcome was the formation of a network to foster collaborations between the Bioenergy Centre and several UoB Schools centred around the Veterinary School and its farm and abattoir facilities.

Maria Escobar-Tello has also submitted grants applications following the results of this project.