A team of researchers has developed a method of turning urine into electricity. Yes, you read that right, urine into electricity. Although not a great deal of power is being produced by this technology at the present time, the results are encouraging. Driving the researchers is a lofty goal. If the technology could be improved to the point where significant power can be produced, it would be a game changer for the areas of the world that lack electric infrastructure. Not only that, just imagine powering an electric car with electricity generated from effluent waste. That would be a major development.
How it works
The principle is simple. Urine is basically organic chemicals in solution so if the chemicals can be properly utilized, it can be a fuel like any other substance. What makes urine appealing is that it is rich in key compounds and, as Suburban Chrysler of Troy, MI, a full-service Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ram dealer puts it: “there is a lot of it in the world.” The research is being done at the University of the West of England in Bristol in their BioEnergy Centre. The way it works is that urine is processed by a special Microbial Fuel Cell (MFC). MFCs are devices that harness the energy of microorganisms to create energy as part of their metabolic processes. In other words, when these organisms grow, they produce electricity.
The MFC process
The research based at the University of the West of England in Bristol has developed a method for turning human effluent into electricity. Urine is basically chemicals in solution, so if those chemicals can be properly utilized, it can be a fuel like any other. The Bristol team uses a Microbial Fuel Cell (MFC) system, which harnesses microorganisms to create energy as part of their metabolic process.
The idea of harvesting the energy produced by microbes isn’t new. Scientists have been doing it for years in other applications. What is remarkable about the process is how efficient it is. Professor Ioannis Ieropoulos, lead researcher and director of the Bristol BioEnergy Centre explains that microbes can convert organic matter into energy with a remarkable 96% efficiency. Currently the MFC designed by BioEnergy Centre is just 60% but improvements are being made.
First lighting and then cars
For the moment, the MFC process generates only enough electricity to recharge lithium ion batteries that allow for lighting. In areas with a poor power infrastructure, this is a tremendous asset however – the sun may not shine, and the wind may not blow, but urine will always be available. The technology is so promising that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are involved, and is currently being deployed through Oxfam to bring power to refugees in the developing world.
As a happy side-benefit of the MFC process, the end product is made more environmentally friendly. The effluent coming out of the MFC is cleaner than the urine that went in, and is elementally perfect for fertilizer applications.
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