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Waste Not
Stinky Waste Products Become Solutions for Pressing Environmental Problems

What do sulfur and urine have in common? Scientists and designers have uncovered new ways to transform the two smelly substances into smart solutions to tackle pressing environmental problems.

According to new research by scientists at the University of Arizona (UA), “yellow chemistry” could hold the key to reducing environmental impacts and providing an inexpensive — and sustainable — alternative to traditional plastics. Sulfur is the driving force behind the discovery, which boasts properties that make it ideal for use in lenses in infrared devices, such as a high refractive index — a measure of how light bends as it passes through a material.

Scientists in UA’s Chemistry and Biochemistry and Optical Sciences departments began studying sulfur-based materials for use in advanced batteries in 2010, which resulted in Professor Jeffrey Pyun’s discovery of a new type of plastic. At that time, Pyun and his colleagues — which include UA optical sciences professor Robert Norwood and UA chemistry and biochemistry professor Richard Glass — were focused on using waste sulfur from petroleum refining as a low-cost feedstock for a new kind of plastic.

Derived from the odiferous element sulfur, the new hybrid material — Chalcogenide Hybrid Inorganic-Organic Polymers (CHIPs) — offers an affordable and abundant alternative to germanium and chalcogenide glass, which are commonly used in lens materials for infrared imaging. It can also easily be turned into plastics. “Sulfur you can get for the same magnitude of cost of coal, so it’s literally dirt cheap,” Pyun said.

Recognizing the material’s potential, Pyun and his team have already begun seeking out industrial partners to license the technology and begin integrating it into products. The team’s first area of focus will be on infrared optics, in which lenses for industrial infrared applications present a significant market opportunity. The team believes the material could be deployed in the infrared detectors used in self-driving cars, night-vision equipment and missile target seekers. There are also potential opportunities for the material to be used with smartphones to create heat-sensing apps.

In regards to sulfur-based plastics, Pyun has launched a startup, Innovative Energetics, to further develop commercial technologies and unlock an “enormous new world for plastics in this already established area.”

Meanwhile, Parisian designers have unveiled a stylish and sustainable way to tackle the City of Light’s public urination epidemic.

Designed by Laurent Lebot, the Uritroittoir is a sleek, modern outdoor toilet that helps protects urban infrastructure, while simultaneously beautifying the city. A far cry from the standard urinal or porta-potty, the Uritroittoir consists of a closed, vegetation-topped bin containing a bed of straw and wood chips, which are later used as compost in city parks and gardens. In addition to keeping pee off the streets, the outdoor toilets’ straw and wood chip mix helps neutralize smells, thanks to its high carbon content.

The Uritroittoirs are monitored via computer, which can detect when they need to be emptied. The contents are then taken outside the city to be turned into compost.

A pair of Uritrottoirs rings in around $9,730, but the price tag is well worth the upfront cost. Approximately 1,800 miles of sidewalk across the city has to be cleaned by sanitation workers each day as a result of public urination. But beyond the stench, urine — and the harsh chemicals used to clean it — can damage streets, walkways, lampposts, telephone poles and other street furniture. Interventions such as the Uritroittoirs are imperative for helping cities enforce responsible public urination and cut down on costs associated with cleanup and damage.

A similar project has been rolled out in San Francisco, after a street lamp collapsed due to deterioration resulting from urine. The city has since installed open-air urinals in parks to discourage what the French call “les pipis sauvage” or “wild peeing.”


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