An invention that I see becoming pretty popular in places where human overpopulation creates a torrid scenario for both waste management and lighting, let alone just having any lighting itself… solving the problem of lighting in places where there is no power (or even fuel to make the power) just does not get the kind of funding that it deserves. This is urine-powered electricity. From Reuters:
A toilet that uses urine to generate electricity will soon light up dark corners of refugee camps after being tested by students in the UK. The pioneering toilet, the result of collaboration between global aid agency Oxfam and the University of the West of England in Bristol, uses live microbes which feed on urine and convert it into power.
Led by Professor Ioannis Ieropoulos, the scientists developed microbial fuel cells that use bacteria grown on carbon fiber anodes that feed on urine, breaking it down and generating electricity which is stored in a capacitor. They used up to 24 of these microbial fuel cells in 2013 to prove that urine could produce enough electricity to power a mobile phone. For the pee-power toilet they are using 288 fuel cells, though a thousand-unit cell stack is planned for the next version of the device.
Ok, for those of you that didn’t watch the video, from Power Technology:
The technology works by utilising specialised, naturally-abundant microbes, housed within the anodic chamber of the fuel cell as a bio-catalyst. When fed urine, the microbes naturally consume it as part of their normal metabolic process, which in turn generates electrons. When connected to a cathode, these electrodes are given a path and generate a current.
Urine has never been exploited for power purposes before now. Although it has been proven technically possible, can it be scaled up and is it practical? In this second phase of research the scientists want to prove the answer is yes to both of these questions. They will now be working to maximise the power output, which will inadvertently have the advantage of improved breakdown of the waste material, thus making it safer for disposal.
The ultimate aim, however, is to develop and refine the process to make enough energy to charge a battery, and in the future, be installed into domestic bathrooms to harness the urine and produce sufficient electricity to power showers, lighting or razors.
“The beauty of this fuel source is that we are not relying on the erratic nature of the wind or the sun; we are actually re-using waste to create energy,” said Dr Ieropoulos.
Why does it deserve funding? One reason – lighting creates safety. Families feel they can protect themselves during times like this when there is illumination. We are humans; darkness is our #1 largest predatory fear bred by evolution, and we’ve been praying to the light during the darkness for millions of years, regardless of species. Look at North Korea, for example, even though this isn’t what the article is really about — what do you think the lack of power and light does for people? It allows you to enslave them:
Proper management of human waste in places where a major disaster event has happened also happens to be the second most important thing to provide. There are emergency waste management guides for conflict zones and disaster event zones all over the place, which should give an idea of the importance of something along these lines, providing a use for waste and a positive item to the zone itself.
Here’s a bit of an eye-opening reason why waste management in disaster regions is important… from Johns Hopkins/Red Cross (PDF link) on getting a community in a disaster zone involved in their own management quickly, which is what the Professor’s work does, by providing light:
Experience has shown that wide-ranging benefits result when communities actively involved in their own health and participate in water and sanitation projects. Using participatory approaches to engage the community has many benefits. Such approaches give community members the opportunity to build and strengthen problem-solving skills Public health guide for emergencies I 381 Water, sanitation and hygiene in emergencies 8 and empower them to take action. While communities, initially, might have limited capability to respond, giving them the opportunity to be involved helps with their own recovery process (see the mental health chapter for additional thoughts on the community recovery process). Through community involvement, water and sanitation programmes and projects can gain a thorough understanding of the needs, concerns and values of the beneficiaries. The local skills and capacities that exist among the disaster-affected population can also be identified and strengthened. Strong community involvement is critical for projects being sustainable long after external assistance stops.
The Good Professor’s work is being funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation too (and has been since 2013), which is super cool! From the Foundation website news section:
“Today, 2.5 billion people practice open defecation or lack adequate toilet facilities so we are always looking for new ways to ensure that less human waste winds up in the environment, untreated,” said Brian Arbogast, director of the Water, Sanitation & Hygiene team at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “Innovations don’t need to be complicated or expensive in order to be impactful which is why we are so excited about the range of approaches these projects represent.”
GCE grants fund innovative ideas to tackle persistent global health and development problems. Phase II grants are awarded to Phase I winners whose projects have shown progress and are particularly promising. Phase II projects also show a strong alignment to the foundation’s strategic priorities and maintain the innovation and excitement of the great idea that was funded during the first phase. We also look for projects which have demonstrated the development of partnerships and collaboration that would help move projects toward implementation.
New Phase II grants were awarded to five organizations working to improve water and sanitation conditions in the developing world:
- University of the West of England, Bristol in the U.K. to develop microbial fuel cells that can be powered by urine. The electricity generated can be used to power sanitation of the waste, and even to charge a cell phone.
- Beijing Sunnybreeze Technology Inc. in Chinato develop a waterless toilet including an inexpensive mini waste processor.
- North Carolina State University in the U.S.to improve and develop a low-cost, portable auger-based technology that can reliably and hygienically empty a wide variety of pit latrines and septic tanks which contain waste with a range of moisture contents.
- Rice University in the U.S. to extend the capabilities of a solar steam sterilizer into a self-contained human waste-to-fuel converter for the manufacturing of clean, safe biofuel to satisfy demands for energy sources and agricultural fertilizer in the developing world.
- National University of Mexico in Mexico to develop a digital tool for water survey facilities around the world, so that faster and more reliable water quality analysis is available for efforts to reduce enteric diseases worldwide.
- The University of Delaware in the U.S. to develop and implement breathable membranes that could not only protect groundwater from contaminants but also accelerate the drying and disinfection of human waste.
Also, a cool interview from Financial Times with Professor Ieropoulis — it’s quick, read it:
CB: How did the idea for recharging electrical devices using urine come about?
Dr Ieropoulos: As a research group, we have been working with this same fuel cell technology for 12 years, feeding it with different “fuels” and putting it to the test by powering electronic devices. The types of fuel we have been experimenting with are different kinds of organic waste such as domestic waste water, rotten fruits, prawn shells, dead insects and grass clippings.
Urine was just another candidate “fuel”. However, the level of power output improvement was so good that we were able to charge a commercial battery [of a mobile phone] directly, for the first time.
CB: Does the fuel cell have a special name and how does it work?
Dr Ieropoulos: The technology is known as the Microbial Fuel Cell (MFC) and works on bacterial metabolism. Effectively, live microbes, which we collect from the natural environment, inhabit the inside of these devices and break down the organic fuel for their growth and maintenance, which is exactly what they do in nature.
One byproduct of the bacterial respiration comes in the form of electrons, which are transferred on to the electrode surface inside the MFC. These electrons flow through a circuit, which produces the electrical current.
CB: As the Gates Foundation has supported the project, can we expect to see it mainly being applied to developing-world problems, where mains electricity is hard to find?
Dr Ieropoulos: This is the ultimate goal for the work carried out under the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grant, and not only as a means of electricity generation but also as a technology that can improve sanitation. But in addition, the work carried out under the UK EPSRC grant is primarily focused at developing this technology for the developed world.
CB: Do you know how Bill and Melinda Gates feel about your project?
Dr Ieropoulos: We do indeed, and this is through Dr Carl Hensman, our programme officer from the water, sanitation and hygiene programme. The co-chairs and trustees, Bill and Melinda Gates, are kept regularly informed and feel excited about our project, as they do for all the projects funded under the different programmes of the Gates Foundation.
CB: How might it be applied in the developed world?
Dr Ieropoulos: We consider the MFC to be a platform technology [something that enables products and processes to be developed from it], with numerous applications in different sectors of society.
The electricity is generated because the constituent microbes break down – and therefore treat – the organic waste, hence one area of focus is waste water treatment.
As the energy generated can be used for powering or recharging electronic devices, low-power electronics is another area of application. Biosensing is a third. This is exploiting the immediate response of the micro organisms to the presence of different compounds.
More recently, it has been demonstrated that MFCs can synthesise chemical compounds, while generating electricity. This means that elemental recovery [turning waste products into useful resources again] is an area that is beginning to grow. So, there are several avenues that can be explored in order to implement the technology in the developed world.
CB: Do you see this as a “disruptive” technology? Could it be an idea that will change the way people produce batteries for torches, say, or make domestic electrical appliances?
Dr Ieropoulos: At community level with waste water treatment, we do not necessarily see the MFCs as a disruptive technology at present, but rather as a complementary solution that can be part of a hybrid system. There is still some way to go before it can replace an existing technology such as batteries, but the EcoBot work we have been developing over the years has shown that small robots can be powered directly by MFCs, without any other form of power supply onboard. This is part of our self-sustainable systems work.
CB: Is it satisfying to see what from the outside seems a completely outlandish idea bear fruit?
Dr Ieropoulos: It is exciting, and this is the very essence of scientific research. To think about the difficult or even impossible and push the boundaries of current knowledge to see if it can work.
CB: How would you like to see this development being used in 10 years’ time? Does it have applications for helping counter global warming, for instance?
Dr Ieropoulos: In this timeframe, we would definitely like to see the technology deployed at different scales, in both the developing and developed worlds. There are so many sectors that MFCs can contribute to, either by cutting down energy consumption, increasing the efficiency of waste utilisation or even assisting in the recovery of useful nutrients from organic matter.
This is a technology that turns waste into useful commodities and it would be extremely beneficial to integrate it in existing processes, as it can help cut global warming.
Take a moment too and just view the contributions that Professor Ieropoulis has made to the field:
World Health Organization Guide on Emergency Waste Management:
United Nations and Humanitarian Affairs Guide on Emergency Waste Management: