Pee-powered light for refugee camps: University trials urine-tricity urinal

A prototype urinal has been launched today that uses the power of pee to generate electricity. The “urine-tricity” project is a collaboration between Oxfam and the University of the West of England, and aims to eventually provide indoor lighting for refugee camp toilets, where women face a very real threat of being assaulted in dark cubicles at night.

The early version of the toilet is being trialled at UWE in Bristol, where it has been strategically placed by the student union bar. The urinal contains Microbial Fuel Cells (MFCs), which use bacteria to convert organic matter into electricity; a cheap and environmentally friendly way to obtain renewable energy.

Light for Safety at Night (Photo credit UWE Bristol)

Light for Safety at Night (Photo credit UWE Bristol)

Since almost any biodegradeable substance can be utilised as fuel in these systems, the use of urine to power lights in cubicles is a logical step. Professor Ionnis Ieropolous, director of the BioEnergy team at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, hopes that “the project with Oxfam could have a huge impact in refugee camps.”

In the Robotics Lab’s ingenious urinal, urine runs through a stack of MFCs to generate electricity which can be used for lighting, or even to charge a mobile phone, as Prof Ieropolous explains in this video. Since there would be a plentiful supply of urine to ‘feed’ the cells, which would require little maintenance, urine-tricity offers an exciting opportunity for aid agencies to light inaccessible areas.

Microbial Fuel Cell (Photo Credit UWE Bristol)

Microbial Fuel Cell (Photo Credit UWE Bristol)

MFCs consist of two chambers that contain an anode and a cathode, respectively. These electrodes are connected by an electrically conductive pathway such as a wire, creating a bio-electrochemical system that mimics natural bacterial interactions to produce a current of electricity. Bacteria in the anode chamber are kept in anaerobic conditions, where there is no oxygen available for them to transfer electrons to after oxidising their food. Therefore, the microorganisms transfer electrons directly to the anode, via specialised proteins on their outer membrane. The cathode chamber contains an oxidising agent, and therefore acts as an electron sink. The flow of electrons from one electrode to the other generates a current of electricity that can be used, for example, to power a light bulb.

One microbial fuel cell costs about $2, meaning that a unit would be around $2,000 to set up – the urinal in Bristol was just £600 to install.”It’s quite fascinating and it’s very fulfilling to be involved in such valuable research,” said Prof Ieropolous.

 

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Veronica Wignall

Veronica is a Biology graduate from the University of Bristol, she is currently an editorial assistant but hopes to move into science media comms! Follow Veronica on Twitter @vronwig

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