Environmental Science and Pollution Research

, Volume 25, Issue 36, pp 35981–35989 | Cite as

Processes and electron flow in a microbial electrolysis cell bioanode fed with furanic and phenolic compounds

  • Xiaofei Zeng
  • Abhijeet P. Borole
  • Spyros G. PavlostathisEmail author
Sustainable Waste Management


Furanic and phenolic compounds are problematic compounds resulting from the pretreatment of lignocellulosic biomass for biofuel production. Microbial electrolysis cell (MEC) is a promising technology to convert furanic and phenolic compounds to renewable H2. The objective of the research presented here was to elucidate the processes and electron equivalents flow during the conversion of two furanic (furfural, FF; 5-hydroxymethyl furfural, HMF) and three phenolic (syringic acid, SA; vanillic acid, VA; 4-hydroxybenzoic acid, HBA) compounds in the MEC bioanode. Cyclic voltammograms of the bioanode demonstrated that purely electrochemical reactions in the biofilm attached to the electrode were negligible. Instead, microbial reactions related to the biotransformation of the five parent compounds (i.e., fermentation followed by exoelectrogenesis) were the primary processes resulting in the electron equivalents flow in the MEC bioanode. A mass-based framework of substrate utilization and electron flow was developed to quantify the distribution of the electron equivalents among the bioanode processes, including biomass growth for each of the five parent compounds. Using input parameters of anode efficiency and biomass observed yield coefficients, it was estimated that more than 50% of the SA, FF, and HMF electron equivalents were converted to current. In contrast, only 12 and 9% of VA and HBA electron equivalents, respectively, resulted in current production, while 76 and 79% remained as fermentation end products not further utilized in exoelectrogenesis. For all five compounds, it was estimated that 10% of the initially added electron equivalents were used for fermentative biomass synthesis, while 2 to 13% were used for exoelectrogenic biomass synthesis. The proposed mass-based framework provides a foundation for the simulation of bioanode processes to guide the optimization of MECs converting biomass-derived waste streams to renewable H2.


Lignocellulosic biomass Microbial electrolysis cell Electron balance Fermentation Exoelectrogenesis H2 



This manuscript has been co-authored by UT-Battelle, LLC under Contract No. DE-AC05-00OR22725 with the US Department of Energy. The US Government retains and the publisher, by accepting the article for publication, acknowledges that the US Government retains a non-exclusive, paid-up, irrevocable, worldwide license to publish or reproduce the published form of this manuscript, or allow others to do so, for US Government purposes. The Department of Energy will provide public access to these results of federally sponsored research in accordance with the DOE Public Access Plan (

Supplementary material

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ESM 1 (PDF 128 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Civil and Environmental EngineeringGeorgia Institute of TechnologyAtlantaUSA
  2. 2.Biosciences DivisionOak Ridge National LaboratoryOak RidgeUSA
  3. 3.Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and EducationThe University of TennesseeKnoxvilleUSA

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