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Pee-Powered Toilet Could Help Light Refugee Camps

Sometimes clean technology doesn't need to be sanitary.

Students and staff at the University of the West of England in Bristol now have the opportunity to test out a prototype toilet that uses urine to generate electricity, The Guardian reports.

Researchers at the university and the charity Oxfam developed the “pee power” toilet to prove that urine can generate electricity, and show its potential for helping to light cubicles in international refugee camps. The technology uses urine-fed microbial fuel cell (MFC) stacks to generate electricity that can power indoor lighting.

The hope is that the technology can be scaled up by aid agencies to bring light to refugee camp toilets in disaster zones.

In 2013, The Bristol BioEnergy Centre demonstrated MCF stacks could generate enough electricity to power a mobile phone. Bacteria grows on special carbon fiber anodes that are inserted inside ceramic cylinders to create a battery-like circuit. As the urine passes through the cylinders, the bacteria breaks down the sugar and other chemicals it contains to create electrons, which build up a small electrical charge inside the fuel cell. The charge passes to a capacitor, which stores the electrical power.

The technology uses microbes which feed on urine 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,” research lead Professor Ioannis Ieropoulos, director of the Bristol BioEnergy Centre, told The Guardian. “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.”

To make the test as authentic as possible, the prototype urinal is located near the Student Union bar and resembles toilets used in refugee camps. The equipment that converts the urine into power rests underneath the urinal and can be viewed through a clear screen.

Humans relieve themselves of around 1.7 trillion gallons of urine each year, which researchers (seriously) believe could serve as a cheap and readily available energy source. The cost of the unit installed at the university would cost around $900 to set up.