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Every day, we produce a lot of sewage (wastewater full of feces and urine). In fact, it adds up to
6.4 trillion liters of urine alone produced worldwide each year! The sewage is collected and then
treated or disposed of. But what if, along the way, there were a way to make that sewage do
something useful? It turns out that human urine is rich in nutrients, and some bacteria actually
thrive on eating those nutrients. There are also devices called microbial fuel cells that can
generateelectrical power by using certain bacteria. Could human urine be used to generate
electricity in a microbial fuel cell? Find out for yourself in this science project

Humans, like all living things, produce a lot of waste, but scientists are beginning to show us

that it doesn't need to end there. In terms of trash waste, Sweden burns more than two million

tons of the stuff annually—almost 50% of the garbage produced by the country—in order to

generate electricity. But that's not the only kind of waste that's proving useful. In the

U.K., human poop-powered buses took to the streets last November in a bid to reduce

emissions and fossil fuel usage. And now, on a similar theme, scientists working at

theUniversity of the West of England (UWE) have developed a “Pee-Power” toilet that,

amazingly, generates electricity from urine.

Although the prototype urinal currently resides outside of the Student Union Bar, where it is sure

to receive a lot of visitors, the researchers behind the invention hope that it can do more than

amuse and bewilder drunken students. The energy generated by the system is used to light up

the cubicle, which would make it an ideal addition to refugee or displaced person camps that

often don’t have electricity. But it isn’t just stumbling around at night that is a problem; these

places are often dangerous for women after hours as many are abused or molested in dark
areas such as cubicles. The researchers are therefore hopeful that these toilets will help make it

safer for women to use the loo at night.

So how do they work? The cubicles are fitted with stacks of microbial fuel cells (MFCs) that are

based on microbial metabolism. The live bacteria inside the fuel cells use urine as fuel for their

growth and maintenance, but as a bonus for us they produce electricity as a byproduct.

“The MFC is in effect a system which taps a portion of that biochemical energy used for

microbial growth, and converts that directly into electricity—what we are calling urine-tricity or

pee power,” project leader Ioannis Ieropoulos said in a news release. “This technology is about

as green as it gets, as we do not need to utilize fossil fuels and we are effectively using a waste

product that will be in plentiful supply.”

Importantly, MFCs are also extremely cheap: each one costs around £1 ($1.51) to make.

According to Ieropoulos, setting up a unit like the prototype outside the Union will cost around

£600 ($900), which is a relatively small price tag given that it is a lasting product.

The researchers are trying to encourage as many students into the urinal as possible for now,

which has been designed to look like the toilets used in refugee camps run by the charity

Oxfam. If the ongoing trial aproves that the cubicles work well, then hopefully they can be

installed in areas where they are needed.

 By Jonathan Kalan
12 March 2014

Today, over seven billion people populate our planet, which means on average
around 10.5 billion litres (2.8 billion gallons) of human urine is produced and
wasted each day. It’s the equivalent of 4,200 Olympic-sized swimming pools, if
anyone was counting. In fact, some scientists are – and if they have their way,
our human waste will be wasted no more.

With around one-seventh of the population lacking access to basic electricity,

and as our global supply of oil slowly dwindles and coal continues to add to
mounting greenhouse gases, scientists have rushed to find solutions to power
the world in more renewable and sustainable ways. One answer could lie in
methods being developed to generate power from perhaps an unlikely source.

Last year, a group of researchers at Bristol Robotics Laboratory in the UK proved

they could power a mobile phone with human urine. Their device uses what’s
known as microbial fuel cells, or MFCs, to generate enough energy for a
smartphone to text, browse the internet and make short phone calls. But they
believe, in time, it could eventually help power houses, buildings, and maybe
even entire off-grid villages.

A microbial fuel cell is essentially an energy converter, which uses bacteria found
in nature to breakdown organic matter, and in turn produce electrons that are
converted into energy. It’s a self-renewing system, because the more waste the
microbes eat, the more energy the system can generate and for longer.

MFCs hold such promise because they are currently one of the most efficient
means of converting waste to energy. According to Ani Vallabhaneni, co-founder
of Sanergy, a start-up that converts human waste to energy and fertiliser in
Kenya’s slums, common biogas digesters (which convert waste into mostly
methane gas) are around 35% efficient in terms of capturing energy inside the
waste. It’s claimed MFCs have upwards of 85% efficiency.

Research into MFCs is nothing new – they first appeared over a century ago,
and methods have advanced in fits and starts ever since. In the 1960s, Nasa
began looking at using microbial fuel cells in space to generate power from rice
husks. In the 1980s scientists started investigating whether these cells could help
power developing countries. But it’s only after 2000 that this research area has
really exploded – born of a growing need and increasing opportunity for
renewable-energy sources.

Ioannis Ieropoulos, the lead researcher behind Bristol’s pee-powered phone

charger, and his team have been working on this technology since 2002; their
recent breakthrough has come from adopting a new approach. Other scientists in
this field are trying to improve the efficiency of single cells, so that they produce
more electrons, explains Carl Hensman at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation,
which funds Ieropolous’ research. But the Bristol team’s approach stacks a
series of small-scale microbial fuel cells together. “[Ieropoulos] is redesigning the
fuel cell to make it smaller, and put more cells in there to get more electrons
coming out,” says Hensman.

The process is similar to what researchers found when attempting to generate

more electricity from the old potato light-bulb experiment. By boiling and then
cutting the potato into thin slices to form a parallel series (instead of just using a
bigger potato or trying to speed up the chemical reaction inside the potato) they
increased the energy output 10-fold.

Electric jolt

Microbial fuel cells may be promising, but they aren’t only one way of unlocking
the energy inside our urine.

Urine consists of approximately 98% water, and 2% urea, which is made up of

carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen atoms. Gerardine Botte, a researcher at
Ohio University, recently developed the GreenBox, a device that extracts the
hydrogen from urea through a process called microbial electrolysis. Electrolysis
uses a jolt of electricity to split the urea into hydrogen and oxygen atoms, and
then captures the hydrogen to produce energy. The nitrogen can be used for
artificial fertilisers.
Unlike Ieropoulos’ MFC system, which simply generates electricity from natural
bacteria, Botte’s process requires a constant source of power – the jolt to split
the molecules and produce hydrogen.

“If you had a building of 300 people, you are probably going to need a box of
about 1 kilowatt of power to clean the water,” explains Botte. “You cannot get
more energy than the energy you put in. Hydrogen is only going to have about
40% efficiency – you’re recovering 40% of the energy you use to clean urine.”

As a result, this process is more about capturing the previously untapped energy
in pee during the purification process, than creating an entirely new renewable
source of power. Still, to get fuel-grade hydrogen while decontaminating
(removing the ammonium) wastewater can save tremendous energy costs – so
the potential benefits are clear.

“The most important contribution is deploying these boxes in water treatment

facilities,” Botte says, “where we’re already using energy to clean the water.”

Water works

So could pee-power really be the energy of the future? And can it be a solution
not just for developed nations, but for the billion people around the world who
lack access to electricity?

The biggest hurdles are currently cost, scale, and output. At the commercial
level, these systems could be applied to wastewater treatment plants, saving
tremendous energy costs by effectively recovering energy during the process of
treating urine, and feeding it back into the system.

For smaller-scale home or office use, they still don’t quite produce enough
electricity from urine to justify the space and expense. For places without big
industrial systems – but in need of both energy and clean water, it’s another
“There’s a lot of basic research still going on, a lot to be developed. I believe it
can make it, but the cost has to be really low,” says Korneel Rabaey, president of
the International Society for Microbial Electrochemistry and Technology.

Rabaey estimates that if a one-cubic-metre box containing a microbial fuel cell

system was installed in a village of 2,500 people – and all their urine was
constantly funnelled through that box – you could generate a constant current of
around 500 watts. This would equal around 12 kilowatt hours of energy per day,
or enough to run only one standard 50-watt bulb for around 240 hours.

Presently, this kind of system would cost between $5,000-$10,000. While that’s a
hefty price tag, it would last for an incredibly long time, says Rabaey, “because
these organisms inside are self-renewing. As long as you feed it waste water, the
bacteria is happy.”

While today’s solar panels could certainly deliver more power per unit at that
cost, they wouldn’t last for as long – or be able to clean wastewater.

The Bristol Robotics Lab researchers are aiming to crack this price-per-unit
issue. They built their mobile phone-charging prototype for just a few hundred
pounds – and in two years they hope to have a cheaper prototype that can be
made from locally available materials, anywhere in the world.

“We have to be realistic,” says Ieropoulos, “we cannot be promoting a technology

which is not feasible to be implemented in a poor country.” Rabney agrees. “You
cannot expect a chemical engineer to be present in every village. It has to be
simple, robust, long-lived, and self-reporting,” he says.

So even if answering nature’s call can actually help us make calls for the first
time in history, don’t expect your next toilet to come with built-in phone chargers
– at least, not just yet.