British scientists on Thursday unveiled a toilet that unlocks energy stored within urine to generate electricity, which they hope could be used to light remote places such as refugee camps. Students and staff at the University of the West of England in Bristol are being encouraged to use the prototype urinal, which has been developed with aid agency Oxfam and is currently located on campus.
If the unit is found to provide a reliable source of power, the researchers hope it can be installed in refugee camps to provide a constant supply of electricity — and light.
“It is always a challenge to light inaccessible areas far from a power supply,” explained Andy Bastable, Head of Water and Sanitation at Oxfam. “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.”
Each unit could eventually cost around 600 pounds to build and install, providing an “everlasting” source of power, according to research team leader Ioannis Ieropoulos. The units contain bacteria that breaks down the chemicals in urine, in the process releasing energy in the form of electricity which is stored on a capacitor within a fuel cell.
“The microbial fuel cells (MFC) work by employing live microbes which feed on urine for their own growth and maintenance,” explained Ieropoulos. “The MFC is, in effect, a system which taps a portion of that biochemical energy. “This technology is about as green as it gets, as we do not need to utilise fossil fuels and we are effectively using a waste product that will be in plentiful supply.”
The University of West of the England team announced in 2013 that it had created a urine-powered fuel cell that was able to recharge a mobile phone.
The “Urine-tricity” project is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.