Co-authors Yi Cui, a materials scientist, Craig Criddle, an environmental engineer, and Xing Xie, an interdisciplinary fellow, call their invention a microbial battery.
They hope that one day it will be used in places such as sewage treatment plants, or to break down organic pollutants in the "dead zones" of lakes and coastal waters where fertilizer runoff and other organic waste can deplete oxygen levels and suffocate marine life.
At the moment, however, their laboratory prototype is about the size of a D-cell battery and looks like a chemistry experiment, with two electrodes, one positive, the other negative, plunged into a bottle of wastewater.
Inside that murky vial, attached to the negative electrode like barnacles to a ship's hull, an unusual type of bacteria feast on particles of organic waste and produce electricity that is captured by the battery's positive electrode.
The Stanford engineers estimate that the microbial battery can extract about 30 percent of the potential energy locked in wastewater. That is roughly the same efficiency at which the best commercially available solar cells convert sunlight into electricity.
The research is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.