Researchers in the UK have created a urinal that converts pee directly into electricity. The technology uses a set of microbial fuel cells (MFC), which contain tiny organisms that survive by breaking down urine and producing electricity as a byproduct.
An earlier model of the urinal was shown to successfully charge up a mobile phone, a stunt that made headlines back in 2013. But the team from the University of the West of England in Bristol, UK, wanted to find a more practical use for the technology, and is now working with Oxfam with the aim of lighting up refugee camps at night using nothing but urine.
Currently many refugee camps or camps for displaced people don't have electricity, which makes residents, particularly women, vulnerable to abuse while walking at night from their bed to the toilet. The team hopes that the urinal will generate enough power to light up not only the toilet cubicles, but also other areas of the camps, making them safer for people around the world who have been forced from their homes as a result of war, natural disaster or famine. It would also help these camps reduce the amount of waste and pollution, which often isn't hygienically disposed of in the absence of proper plumbing.
"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," Ioannis Ieropoulos, the project leader, said in a press release.
"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."
Right now it costs around US$1.50 to produce each MFC, and the current prototype would be around US$900 to set-up, which is pretty cheap as far as plumbing installations go. Even better, the technology will essentially last forever. So as long as people need to pee, there will be electricity.
The university is now trialling the urinal's ability to keep lights on on campus, using staff and student's pee. Conveniently, they've set it up right near the campus pub, so they have no shortage of willing participants.
You can find out more about the set-up in the video below. And next time you flush the toilet, think about how valuable your pee really is.