Waste Not
UK Engineers Develop Urine-Powered Fuel Cell

Researchers in the United Kingdom say they have created a fuel cell that uses bacteria to break down human liquid waste to generate enough electricity to charge a mobile phone.

Currently, the amount of electricity produced is just enough to make one call on a standard Samsung mobile phone. The researchers say the fuel cell cost around £1 ($1.51) to produce, meaning the devices could provide a new form of cheap power generation. The bacteria used in the fuel cells are the same as those normally found in wastewater treatment plants.

While the fuel cell is not much larger than a car battery, the researchers claim they will eventually be able to craft smaller and more portable ones.

Published in the Royal Society of Chemistry journal, Physical Chemistry Chemical Physics, the researchers explained the process: Bacteria is grown 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.

“One product that we can be sure of an unending supply is our own urine,” said Dr. Ioannis Ieropoulos, an engineer at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory at the University of West England, who developed the fuel cell with colleagues at Bristol University. “The beauty of this fuel source is that we are not relying on the erratic nature of the wind or the sun. We are actually re-using waste to create energy.”

Ieropoulos says he sees a future where the system is installed in smart toilets that can power items throughout a house. The technology also could be used in remote regions of the developing world.

Funding for the project has been supplied by public money from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, as well as the Gates Foundation.

In other fuel cell innovation news, General Motors and Honda recently announced a partnership to share expertise, economies of scale and common sourcing strategies to co-develop next-generation fuel cell system and hydrogen storage technologies by 2020. The automotive companies said they plan to work together with stakeholders to advance refueling infrastructure, which is important for the long-term viability and consumer acceptance of fuel cell vehicles.

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