A toilet, conveniently situated near the Student Union Bar at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol), is proving pee can generate electricity. It is hoped the pee-power technology will light cubicles in refugee camps, which are often dark and dangerous places, particularly for women.
Students and staff are being asked to use the urinal to donate pee to fuel microbial fuel cell (MFC) stacks that generate electricity to power indoor lighting.
The prototype urinal is the result of a partnership between researchers at UWE Bristol and Oxfam. The research team is led by Professor Ioannis Ieropoulos, Director of the Bristol BioEnergy Centre located in the Bristol Robotics Laboratory at UWE Bristol.
Professor Ieropoulos says, “We have already proved that this way of generating electricity works. Work by the Bristol BioEnergy Centre hit the headlines in 2013 when the team demonstrated that electricity generated by microbial fuel cell stacks could power a mobile phone. This exciting project with Oxfam could have a huge impact in refugee camps.
“The microbial fuel cells work by employing live microbes which feed on urine (fuel) for their own growth and maintenance. The MFC is in effect a system which taps a portion of that biochemical energy used for microbial growth, and converts that directly into electricity — what we are calling urine-tricity or pee power. This technology is about as green as it gets, as we do not need to utilize fossil fuels, and we are effectively using a waste product that will be in plentiful supply.”
The urinal on the University campus resembles toilets used in refugee camps by Oxfam to make the trial as realistic as possible. The technology that converts the urine into power sits underneath the urinal and can be viewed through a clear screen.
Andy Bastable, Head of Water and Sanitation at Oxfam, says, “Oxfam is an expert at providing sanitation in disaster zones, and it is always a challenge to light inaccessible areas far from a power supply. This technology is a huge step forward. Living in a refugee camp is hard enough without the added threat of being assaulted in dark places at night. The potential of this invention is huge.”
Both Professor Ieropoulos and Andy Bastable agree it is the cheap, sustainable aspect of this technology, which relies on the abundant, free supply of urine that makes it so practical for aid agencies to use in the field.
Professor Ieropoulos says “One microbial fuel cell costs about £1 to make, and we think that a small unit like the demo we have mocked up for this experiment could cost as little as £600 to set up, which is a significant bonus as this technology is in theory everlasting.”
It certainly brings new meaning to the idea of spending a penny in the fight against poverty.