Microbial fuel cells (MFCs) are typically designed as a two-chamber system with the bacteria in the anode chamber separated from the cathode chamber by a polymeric proton exchange membrane (PEM). Most MFCs use aqueous cathodes where water is bubbled with air to provide dissolved oxygen to electrode. To increase energy output and reduce the cost of MFCs, we examined power generation in an air-cathode MFC containing carbon electrodes in the presence and absence of a polymeric proton exchange membrane (PEM). Bacteria present in domestic wastewater were used as the biocatalyst, and glucose and wastewater were tested as substrates. Power density was found to be much greater than typically reported for aqueous-cathode MFCs, reaching a maximum of 262 +/- 10 mW/m2 (6.6 +/- 0.3 mW/L; liquid volume) using glucose. Removing the PEM increased the maximum power density to 494 +/- 21 mW/m2 (12.5 +/- 0.5 mW/L). Coulombic efficiency was 40-55% with the PEM and 9-12% with the PEM removed, indicating substantial oxygen diffusion into the anode chamber in the absence of the PEM. Power output increased with glucose concentration according to saturation-type kinetics, with a half saturation constant of 79 mg/L with the PEM-MFC and 103 mg/L in the MFC without a PEM (1000 omega resistor). Similar results on the effect of the PEM on power density were found using wastewater, where 28 +/- 3 mW/m2 (0.7 +/- 0.1 mW/L) (28% Coulombic efficiency) was produced with the PEM, and 146 +/- 8 mW/m2 (3.7 +/- 0.2 mW/L) (20% Coulombic efficiency) was produced when the PEM was removed. The increase in power output when a PEM was removed was attributed to a higher cathode potential as shown by an increase in the open circuit potential. An analysis based on available anode surface area and maximum bacterial growth rates suggests that mediatorless MFCs may have an upper order-of-magnitude limit in power density of 10(3) mW/m2. A cost-effective approach to achieving power densities in this range will likely require systems that do not contain a polymeric PEM in the MFC and systems based on direct oxygen transfer to a carbon cathode.