Or rather, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has invested in the second stage of a project to produce electrical power from the digestion of urine, electricity that can be used to then power a mobile phone. Here’s the video about the first stage of the project, also Foundation funded:
And here’s the description of the basic idea:
The main aim of this proposal is to recover useful levels of electrical energy directly from urine, and thus convert an existing – entirely unexploited – waste into a sustainable fuel for the future, with concomitant clean water production.
To achieve this Microbial Fuel Cells (MFCs) utilize specialised, naturally-abundant microbes housed within the anodic chamber of the fuel cell as the bio-catalyst. The microbes are fed urine directly and as part of their normal metabolic process consume the urine which generates electrons and when connected to a cathode allows a path for these electrons generating current. In addition the passing of these electrons and protons through an ion-selective membrane, (which separates the anodic and cathodic chambers of the MFC), reacts with air generating clean water.
There is no doubt at all that this works, in the sense that it is technically true that it is possible to generate “urin-tricity”. The question is whether it is possible to scale it up to useful amounts and at a reasonable cost. That’s what the second stage of the project is all about:
Bill Gates’ charitable foundation has handed British boffins a wodge of cash to help produce a urine-powered battery which can charge a mobile phone.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has named a team at the University of the West of England, Bristol, among the five winners of Phase II of its Grand Challenges Explorations scheme, which focuses on water, sanitation and hygiene.
Phase I was to show that it actually works on any technical level, Phase II is to work on scaling it up and then looking at whether it is actually economic. For the point of most of these sorts of technologies is that while we can do many cool things like this they may well not be sensible ways of doing things. Certainly, if we were in the middle of London it would be more sensible to put the urine into the normal sewers and water treatment plants, get our drinking water back from those plants and charge up our mobile from the easily available and very cheap electrical sockets in every room of every building.
The real question now to be researched is whether this method makes sense in those parts of the world where one of those three, or more likely all three of sewage, potable water and electricity, don’t exist. Would such technologies be cheaper than spending the money to actually go and build those systems? In the short term there will indeed be places where this is so. And it can also happen for the long term as well. It’s a general assumption that no place without a landline network will ever have one. Providing comms ability through mobile connections is so much cheaper that no one will ever build out a telecoms landline network ever again.
Whether this is true of a power grid, sewage and water piping I rather doubt, certainly in any areas of substantial population. But technologies like urin-tricity might have an interim adoption and possibly a long term niche application.
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