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Urine Power: The Wave of the Future?

Nov. 20, 2013
When it comes to sustainable energy sources, I have heard of wind, I have heard of solar, and I have heard of geothermal. But urine?

When it comes to sustainable energy sources, I have heard of wind, I have heard of solar, and I have heard of geothermal. But urine?

Recently, a press release from Waterless Co., maker of no-water urinal systems, arrived in my inbox telling of a research team in the United Kingdom that developed a way to convert urine to fuel. I did a little digging, and this is what I discovered:

Using microbial fuel cells (MFCs), which turn organic matter into electricity via the metabolism of live microorganisms, scientists at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, a collaboration between the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) and the University of Bristol, have managed to harness enough power from urine to charge a mobile phone.

For a video demonstration of the process, click here.

“So far, the microbial fuel power stack that we have developed generates enough power to enable SMS (short message service) messaging, Web browsing, and to make a brief phone call,” Ioannis Ieropoulos, PhD, of UWE Bristol, said. “Making a call on a mobile phone takes up the most energy, but we will get to the place where we can charge a battery for longer periods. The concept has been tested, and it works. It's now for us to develop and refine the process so that we can develop MFCs to fully charge a battery.”

The scientists believe the technology has the potential to be installed in domestic bathrooms and produce enough electricity to power showers, lighting, and electronic devices such as razors.

“We are currently bidding for funding to work alongside partners in the U.S. and South Africa to develop a smart toilet,” Ieropoulos said.

In a related development, in the Netherlands, a new office building will be equipped with no-water urinals that will collect urine. The urine will be guided along a fuel cell. Bacteria growing on an electrode inside of the fuel cell will break down organic substances in the urine and convert them to electricity that will be used to heat the building. The building is expected to open in about two years.

This is worth keeping an eye on, for, as Ieropoulos said, “One product that we can be sure of an unending supply is our own urine,” and, “Using the ultimate waste product as a source of power to produce electricity is about as eco as it gets.” While there likely is no magic bullet that will solve all of the world’s energy problems, perhaps this will be an effective part of a portfolio of energy technologies and strategies. What do you think? Please let us know below.

About the Author

Scott Arnold | Executive Editor

Described by a colleague as "a cyborg ... requir(ing) virtually no sleep, no time off, and bland nourishment that can be consumed while at his desk" who was sent "back from the future not to terminate anyone, but with the prime directive 'to edit dry technical copy' in order to save the world at a later date," Scott Arnold joined the editorial staff of HPAC Engineering in 1999. Prior to that, he worked as an editor for daily newspapers and a specialty-publications company. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Kent State University.