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. As electric power has become the life line of modern civilization so is the quest of human being to find out ways to generate clean power from cheap and environmental friendly resources. Everybody on the planet should have access to clean green power and we should have the solutions to make this possible. The implications of some clean green energy generation techniques are far reaching, and would eliminate poverty worldwide. We are constantly presented with better ways of doing things, but rarely do we see a quick implementation or production of these technologies. While the mainstream media continues to push the idea that we are facing an energy crisis due to a lack of resources, more people are actually looking into alternative energy and discovering that there really is no energy crisis at all. We aren’t facing a lack of resources; we have multiple means to provide energy to billions of people without damaging the environment and diminishing resources. These methods use very little input, and in some cases achieve infinite output. In this context, one resource that’s always available—human urine has recently attracted the attention of energy enthusiasts as a resource to generate energy. The implications behind this technology, or any clean energy technology for that matter is far reaching.
Urine consists of approximately 98% water, and 2% urea, which is made up of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen atoms. Human urine has been turned into all sorts of things over the centuries. Alchemists distilled phosphorous from it, it was once used for the production of gunpowder, tanners employed it in great vats to tan hides, and it has served as the basis of myriad chemical substances, including the first types of plastics. Not the first modern reuse of urine mooted in the modern era, recycling this liquid has been suggested for everything from creating hydrogen for powering cars to creating biological concrete – and even for distilling a type of sports drink. It’s already well known that manure or poop can be recycled for making products like paper as well as creating biogas power from methane gas. Turning urine or pee into electricity is another matter. This readily available “resource”, whether it be from animal or human origin, is now being experimented with to actually generate electricity by using our pee’s basic ingredients to create enough hydrogen to provide electricity for both homes and businesses. 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. This much amount goes to waste every day, but, now scientists are hoping that they can use this to generate power; power for homes, cities and vehicles. Not bad ideas for a waste product that normally winds up in the sewers. 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 fertilizers. Researchers have built a urinal that converts urine directly into electricity. Urinal prototype uses fuel cells to generate steady stream of electricity.
It’s not uncommon for innovate energy ideas to come out of the unprivileged section of society as many of their problems stem from a lack of power, so some from that area are looking for ways to solve it with whatever they have. Students in Nigeria have come up with a power generator that runs on human urine. Their creation uses the process of electrolysis to isolate hydrogen gas from urine, which is then used to power a generator. They can get a whopping six hours of power from one liter of urine, which doesn’t seem like much until we consider that a normal person pees out roughly two liters per day. The model (Figure 2) was created by four girls and the system developed works like this:
- Urine is put into an electrolytic cell, which separates out the hydrogen
- The hydrogen enters a water filter for purification, which then gets pushed into a gas cylinder
- The gas cylinder pushes hydrogen into a cylinder of liquid borax, which is used to remove the moisture from the hydrogen
- This purified hydrogen gas is pushed into the generator
Prior to the development of this technology, a firm called E3 Technologies, LLC, based in Athens, Ohio (USA) has developed and patented a similar technology called the “Greenbox”, to to clean commercial and agricultural waste water and to produce hydrogen energy. It is a low energy electrolysis process that converts ammonia and urea in waste water to hydrogen, nitrogen and pure water. The electric current in the device creates an electrochemical reaction that oxidizes urea and turns it into carbon dioxide which is then moved into the electrolyte material in the machine, while, the kids are making use of urea electrolysis to generate hydrogen and then using that hydrogen to make electricity. Although still a long way off from being implemented on a mass scale, this basic way of creating electricity from a substance normally disposed of can be a practical way to create electricity in places where normal electrical power has been cut off due to devastation by floods or other natural disasters, including severe storms. It can also beused to create electricity in poor rural agricultural areas that are common in Africa and Asia; including many parts of the Middle East. The pee power idea is starting to take hold. Students and faculty at Bristol-based University of the West of England are being asked to use a special urinal that sends all the urine collected there to be used to produce hydrogen for powering an electric generator that creates additional electricity for the campus. A technology like this would only require 1 kilowatt of power to operate an entire commercial building with 300 employees. Imagine if the waste from bathroom/toilet visits was transported into a tank which converted it into energy to power our own house. What if all the toilets in our city all led to one spot which converted the waste to harness immense power? Of course, it’s not that easy, but the technology is there.
A team from a Korean university has come up with a plan that talks about how carbon atoms can be recovered from human urine and then used to produce electricity that is cheap. This will be achieved by replacing the platinum catalyst that is used in fuel cells currently with carbon that is naturally found in human waste. Fuel cells are quite promising and convert chemical energy into electrical energy by a reaction that occurs between hydrogen and oxygen. Scientists believe that they can use fuel cells on a larger scale to power up homes and vehicles by generating electricity; however, the current drawback to this approach is the fact that these fuel cells are expensive and the high cost prevents development of fuel cells on a commercial level. By using the approach explained here, Korean researchers are quite hopeful that they can lower the price for the fuel cells. This will be achieved by replacing the platinum catalyst that is used in fuel cells currently with carbon that is naturally found in human waste. Fuel cells are quite promising and convert chemical energy into electrical energy by a reaction that occurs between hydrogen and oxygen. Scientists believe that they can use fuel cells on a larger scale to power up homes and vehicles by generating electricity; however, the current drawback to this approach is the fact that these fuel cells are expensive and the high cost prevents development of fuel cells on a commercial level. By using the approach explained here, Korean researchers are quite hopeful that they can lower the price for the fuel cells. Urine-tricity successfully demonstrated the charging of a commercially available mobile phone, using Microbial Fuel Cells (MFCs) fed with real neat urine. The proposed work is all about electricity generation, whilst cleaning the urine ‘fuel’ and producing clean water in addition to fertilizer, and is focusing on small-scale units, which have been shown to be more efficient and energy-dense. The continuous flow nature of the technology facilitates continuous growth of the constituent bio film organisms, which clean the input, and can be subsequently used as fertilizer. In essence, the more powerful the unit is, the greater are the rates of urine utilization. Microbial fuel cells may be promising, but they aren’t only one way of unlocking the energy inside our urine.
If we want to help our planet we must move away from the use of unsustainable energy technologies such as oil and nuclear, on a mass scale. Energy generation practices that aren’t clean should be banned from use. The cleaner and greener options are already here, we just need the information to reach more people. The urine powered generator technology has many applications. Today, urine based electric generators, generate enough energy for a smart phone to text, browse the internet and make short phone calls, but, in time, it could eventually help power houses, buildings, and maybe even entire off-grid villages. Agriculture and waste water treatment operations for example, not to mention the construction industry all deal with the disposal of ammonia. Why not use this ammonia for energy generation in multiple ways? The invention could aid farmers to treat the ammonia waste. This latest prototype may be one of the most useful and easily-applicable yet, as it is proposed to power light cubicles in refugee camps, which are often dark and dangerous places particularly for women. Based on earlier prototypes, power produced was used to power mobile phones. If this pee-power prototype project is successful, the idea of using urine produced hydrogen to power hydrogen powered cars is also being considered.
So pee-power could really be the energy of the future and it can 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. Getting the huge number of toilet/fuel cell combinations out to the field will be a big enough logistical problem in itself, let alone the cost of doing so. Which is why it is also exceptionally important that this technology be both affordable to create, and generate electricity for as long a period as possible. 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 story.