I am a junior in Astronautical Engineering, but somehow I ended up working on a renewable energy project in a physics combustion lab, and I spend most of my time as project supervisor in a Biology lab!!! My project is a Microbial Fuel Cell and the way it works in a nutshell is as follows:

A special bacteria, a Shewanella strain, has amazing electrochemical properties, anaerobically consuming food and producing electrons, protons, and CO2. In the fuel cell, the bacteria grow on a graphite anode that becomes charged when they consume waste sugars in the fuel cell fluid. The protons travel across a polarized membrane and the electrons are routed through a platinum wire to the cathode, producing a voltage of about 0.4mV per cell. 

Here’s a picture of the empty fuel cell compartments. One side will hold the anode and the bacteria, the other the cathode and a buffer solution, in between the chambers will be a Proton Exchange Membrane, and the glass chambers will be fixed together using the metal clamps and rubber rings in the background of the picture:

The meters in the top of the picture are to regulate gas flow into the fuel cell. Nitrogen into the anode chamber and compressed air into the cathode chamber. My least favorite part of working in this lab is when I have to wrestle this huge tanks around and put new flow meters on. Not only is it very hard work, I also get extremely dusty.

I’ve been on the project for 2 1/2 years now, and I’m trying to phase myself out and pass on the project to new recruits. Basically my main function now is to supervise in the Biology Lab. We use this lab to grow the bacteria that we need for experimentation and to electrochemically clean the anodes, and just chemically clean the cathodes and electrodes. There aren’t many undergraduates in the lab, and we’re all required to take a safety course and have graduate supervision at all times. One time I spilled 0.5M Sulfuric Acid everywhere (went right through my jeans, I was unhurt but got an authentic “acid wash” look), so the safety precautions are definitely merited in my opinion. Here is a picture of the two electrodes, which are a treated graphite foam, their attached platinum wires, and the Proton Exchange Membranes, all recently cleaned in the lab.

Overall, my research in MFC’s has been an awesome experience for me. Not only is it a seriously interesting project, but I got invaluable experience with both hands-on techniques in the lab and with data analysis and acquisition software. As I’m sure anyone can tell you, getting on a project with one of Viterbi’s faculty was as easy as emailing them and setting up an appointment; I work under Proffessor Ronney (http://ronney.usc.edu/).

There are so many opportunities for undergraduates here at USC, and I would definitely recommend for anyone interested in research to find something fun to work with! Best of luck!