If you think that urination is just an inevitable biological function, think again. Though you likely don’t give pee any more attention than a flush down the toilet, recent research suggests that urine can be used as an energy source. This puts urine in the same category of renewable energy sources as sun light, wind and biofuels. Urine is, strangely enough, on the verge of becoming a clean energy source with the potential to provide cheap electricity to those who need it most.
Researchers at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) and Oxfam, an international confederation of poverty-fighting organizations, have teamed up to create a prototype of a quasi-port-a-potty with pee-powered lighting. The intended use of this urine-powered port-a-potty is for refugee camps and slums such as those in Nairobi, Kenya, in which going to the bathroom at night becomes extremely dangerous. Women in particular are targeted — often for rape — since without proper lighting at night they become defenseless.
The urine-powered technology works with the help of microbial fuel cells. MFCs are devices that utilize the natural functions of bacteria to produce energy. Bacteria in an MFC oxidize (remove electrons from) organic matter. This oxidation is accompanied by reduction, the donation of electrons to something that will accept them. An MFC harnesses this reductive power, utilizing the energy potential from electron transfer.
An MFC could harness this reductive power, utilizing the energy potential from this electron-transfer.
More specifically, the bacteria in the MFC transfer the negatively charged electrons from an anaerobic anode to an aerobic cathode. In the cathode, electrons combine with protons and can form water; in the process of transferring electrons from the anode to the cathode via a resistor that connects them, a current, and, therefore, electricity is produced.
Although the prototype is still being testing and evaluated, this urine-powered “battery” seems promising. These revolutionary port-a-potties could cost less than $1000 to set up, a remarkable price considering the technology involved and the impact it could make. As Andy Bastable, Head of Water and Sanitation at Oxfam said, “the potential of this invention is huge.” Oxfam and UWE Bristol are putting the “P” in power and giving power to the pee.