Cathodic limitation in microbial fuel cells (MFCs) is considered an important hurdle towards practical application as a bioenergy technology. The oxygen reduction reaction (ORR) needs to occur in MFCs under significantly different conditions compared to chemical fuel cells, including a neutral pH. The common reason cited for cathodic limitation is the difficulty in providing protons to the catalyst sites. Here, we show that it is not the availability of protons, but the transport of OH- from the catalyst layer to the bulk liquid that largely governs cathodic potential losses. OH- is a product of an ORR mechanism that has not been considered dominant before. The accumulation of OH- at the catalyst sites results in an increase in the local cathode pH, resulting in Nernstian concentration losses. For Pt-based gas-diffusion cathodes, using polarization curves developed in unbuffered and buffered solutions, we quantified this loss to be >0.3 V at a current density of 10 A m-2. We show that this loss can be partially overcome by replacing the Nafion binder used in the cathode catalyst layer with an anion-conducting binder and by providing additional buffer to the cathode catalyst directly in the form of CO2, which results in enhanced OH- transport. Our results provide a comprehensive analysis of cathodic limitations in MFCs and should allow researchers to develop and select materials for the construction of MFC cathodes and identify operational conditions that will help minimize Nernstian concentration losses due to pH gradients.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1071-1079
Number of pages9
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2012


  • bacteria
  • cathodes
  • electrochemistry
  • fuel cells
  • oxygen reduction

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Chemical Engineering(all)
  • Materials Science(all)
  • Energy(all)


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