Wastewater may contain various potential toxicants. A microbial fuel cell (MFC) is a device in which bacteria convert the chemical energy into electricity. If a toxic event occurs, microbial activity is inhibited and thus the power output of the MFC decreases. Therefore, an MFC could serve as an early toxicity warning device. A real-time biomonitoring system was developed using MFCs to detect the inflow of toxic substances into wastewater treatment systems. After the MFCs reached steady state, a toxic incident was created by adding HCl into the wastewater to alter its pH. Consequently, a rapid decrease in voltage was observed immediately, followed by a subsequent recovery. The optimal MFC design was a single-chamber air cathode MFC, where the anode and cathode were separated by a Selemion proton exchange membrane. Under an external resistance of 5 Ω, the maximum power averaged 0.23 ± 0.023 mW with domestic wastewater. The optimized MFC showed high sensitivity and fast recovery when exposed to the acidic toxic event. When the hydraulic retention time was decreased from 22 to 3.5 min, sensitivity of the MFC increased substantially. Finally, the extent of inhibition observed was found to be related to the toxicity level, suggesting that a dosage–response relationship exists.

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