Substantial Humic Acid Adsorption to Activated Carbon Air Cathodes Produces a Small Reduction in Catalytic Activity

Wulin Yang, Valerie J. Watson, Bruce E. Logan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Scopus citations


Long-term operation of microbial fuel cells (MFCs) can result in substantial degradation of activated carbon (AC) air-cathode performance. To examine a possible role in fouling from organic matter in water, cathodes were exposed to high concentrations of humic acids (HA). Cathodes treated with 100 mg L-1 HA exhibited no significant change in performance. Exposure to 1000 mg L-1 HA decreased the maximum power density by 14% (from 1310 ± 30 mW m-2 to 1130 ± 30 mW m-2). Pore blocking was the main mechanism as the total surface area of the AC decreased by 12%. Minimization of external mass transfer resistances using a rotating disk electrode exhibited only a 5% reduction in current, indicating about half the impact of HA adsorption was associated with external mass transfer resistance and the remainder was due to internal resistances. Rinsing the cathodes with deionized water did not restore cathode performance. These results demonstrated that HA could contribute to cathode fouling, but the extent of power reduction was relatively small in comparison to large mass of humics adsorbed. Other factors, such as biopolymer attachment, or salt precipitation, are therefore likely more important contributors to long-term fouling of MFC cathodes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)8904-8909
Number of pages6
JournalEnvironmental Science and Technology
Issue number16
StatePublished - Aug 16 2016

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Chemistry(all)
  • Environmental Chemistry


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