The urine-power microbial fuel cells (MFC) developed at the University of the West of England (UWE) will see a full scale trial at the coming Glastonbury festival before going to Africa and India.
“We have a stable biological system in which we can treat waste, generate electricity and stop harmful organisms making it through to the sewerage network”
The fuel cells have also recently been shown to kill dangerous microbes in the urine.
- You may like: 9 ways the South West will be powering the future
“We were really excited with the results – it shows we have a stable biological system in which we can treat waste, generate electricity and stop harmful organisms making it through to the sewerage network,” said Professor Ieropoulos (pictured right), Director of the Bristol BioEnergy Centre, based in the Bristol Robotics Laboratory at UWE Bristol.
“Water companies are under pressure to improve treatment and produce cleaner and cleaner water at the end of the process. This means costs are rising, energy consumption levels are high and powerful chemicals are being used,” he said.
The researchers have teamed up with Oxfam and shelter maker Dunster House on a toilet block that can hold 25 people and uses the power from the cells to light the structure. This follows a smaller test system at the festival last year.
Testbed for refugee camps
“The urinal at the festival this year is going to be built to the size we plan to use for refugee camps,” said Prof Ieropoulos. “Generating energy for free and also cleaning the urine so that it is suitable for agricultural use resonates with the Glastonbury Festival organisers who have made us feel very welcome. The benefits of a stand-alone system like the version we have designed is that it provides lighting that can be used in any environment and in any conditions with electricity being generated continuously from the waste without having to rely on the grid or other fossil fuel-based technology.”
Oxfam is starting trials of the technology in Africa and India.
“In most refugee camps around the world, and in poor slum areas, light is needed at night,” said Andy Bastable, Water Sanitation Manager for Oxfam. “The microbial fuel cells light up patches in the camp and this is important in regard to women’s safety at night. Another bonus of this technology is the ability to charge mobile phones. There is potential for us to develop charging centres that would be particularly beneficial in refugee camps where families get split up.
“We are investigating having street lighting based on pee power”
“The project is in quite early days in terms of the field trials and Oxfam is hoping to work with the Bristol BioEnergy Centre not just on investigating the lighting inside toilets but working towards lighting a six metre radius around the toilets so we have street lighting based on pee power.”
The research is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the pathogen experiment showed that the amount of Salmonella enteritidis in the output of the MFC was significantly reduced.
“The wonderful outcome in this study was that tests showed a reduction in the number of pathogens beyond the minimum expectations in the sanitation world,” said John Greenman, Emeritus Professor of Microbiology. “We have reduced the number of pathogenic organisms significantly but we haven’t shown we can bring them down to zero – we will continue the work to test if we can completely eliminate them.”
Other pathogens, including viruses, are now being tested and there are plans for experiments which will establish if the MFC system can eliminate pathogens entirely.
You can see more about the fuel cell technology that has been used for a range of robotics projects at the BioEnergy Centre