Catalysts and catalyst binders are significant portions of the cost of microbial fuel cell (MFC) cathodes. Many materials have been tested as aqueous cathodes, but air-cathodes are needed to avoid energy demands for water aeration. Packed-bed air-cathodes were constructed without expensive binders or diffusion layers using four inexpensive carbon-based materials. Cathodes made from activated carbon produced the largest maximum power density of 676±93mW/m2, followed by semi-coke (376±47mW/m2), graphite (122±14mW/m2) and carbon felt (60±43mW/m2). Increasing the mass of activated carbon and semi-coke from 5 to ≥15g significantly reduced power generation because of a reduction in oxygen transfer due to a thicker water layer in the cathode (~3 or ~6cm). These results indicate that a thin packed layer of activated carbon or semi-coke can be used to make inexpensive air-cathodes for MFCs. © 2013 Elsevier Ltd.