Engineers at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee have identified a catalyst that provides the same level of efficiency in microbial fuel cells as the currently used platinum catalyst but at 5% of the cost  – the discovery may lead to much more affordable energy conversion and storage devices.

In microbial fuel cells, colonies of bacteria feed on organic matter, releasing electrons that create a current as they break down the waste. They can generate electricity while removing organic contaminants from wastewater.

The material – nitrogen-enriched iron-carbon nanorods – also has the potential to replace the platinum catalyst used in hydrogen-producing microbial electrolysis cells, which use organic matter to generate hydrogen – a possible alternative to fossil fuels.

The nanorods have been proved stable and are scalable but more investigation is needed to determine how easily they can be mass-produced.