Urine powered fuel cells are set to light up refugee camps

A university urinal is being used to test the effectiveness of urine-powered microbial fuel cells.

The prototype toilet is the result of a partnership between researchers at the West of England (UWE Bristol) and Oxfam. It is hoped the urine-power technology will light cubicles in refugee camps, which are often dark and dangerous places particularly for women.

Students and staff are being asked to use the urinal, which is located near the Student Union bar, to donate urine to fuel microbial fuel cell (MFC) stacks that generate electricity to power indoor lighting.

The research team is led by Prof Ioannis Ieropoulos , director of the Bristol BioEnergy Centre located in the Bristol Robotics Laboratory at UWE Bristol.

In a statement Prof Ieropoulos said: ‘The microbial fuel cells work by employing live microbes which feed on urine [fuel] 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. This technology is about as green as it gets, as we do not need to utilise fossil fuels and we are effectively using a waste product that will be in plentiful supply.’

The urinal on the University campus resembles toilets used in refugee camps by Oxfam to make the trial as realistic as possible. The technology that converts the urine into power sits underneath the urinal and can be viewed through a clear screen.

Andy Bastable, Head of Water and Sanitation at Oxfam, says, ‘It is always a challenge to light inaccessible areas far from a power supply. This technology is a huge step forward. Living in a refugee camp is hard enough without the added threat of being assaulted in dark places at night. The potential of this invention is huge.’

Prof Ieropoulos and Bastable believe the cheap, sustainable aspect of this technology – which relies on the abundant, free supply of urine – makes it practical for aid agencies to use in the field.

Prof Ieropoulos said: ‘One microbial fuel cell costs about £1 to make, and we think that a small unit like the demo we have mocked up for this experiment could cost as little as £600 to set up, which is a significant bonus as this technology is in theory everlasting.’

The Urine-tricity project is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the wider Microbial Fuel Cell work is funded by the EPSRC.

In 2011 Dr Ioannis Ieropoulos, Prof John Greenman and Prof Chris Melhuish from Bristol Robotics Lab published ’Urine utilisation by microbial fuel cells; energy fuel for the future’ in Physical Chemistry Chemical Physics . Click here to read more.