Thursday, 18 July 2013
Introducing the Urine Fuel Cell!
In the Star Trek science fiction franchise, nothing on board a starship is wasted. That includes human waste. All waste is collected and reused for other purposes, including energy production. Now, thanks to some enterprising researchers at the University of West England, yet another Star Trek concept has been brought to life.
This new development comes by way of a fuel cell that can be used to operate or charge a mobile phone. What powers the cell? Urine. Yes indeed, researchers have found a way to take advantage of a rather plentiful waste product and turn it into usable electricity.
The process works by collecting urine and introducing special bacteria to it. These bacteria break down the chemical components of the urine in order to consume them. The process creates electrons that can then be stored in what is known as a microbial fuel cell (MFC).
Researchers recently showed off their fuel cell by using it to power a mobile phone. Although the first version of their invention is incapable of producing enough electricity to make it viable, they are confident that they can reproduce the effort on a much larger scale. Researchers envision the day when the fuel cells are installed in bathrooms to power mobile phones, electric razors, and so on.
Even more amazing is the fact that the fuel cells can be manufactured for about one pound apiece. If it turns out that they can be produced on a larger scale, the cost for commercial applications would be extremely attractive when compared to more expensive solar and wind options.
Another important point made by the researchers is the fact that humanity will have a reliable and unending supply of urine. And unlike wind and solar power, urine power is not unpredictable or subject to the whims of nature. As long as humanity exists, there will be a constant and steady supply.
In the days and weeks to come there will plenty of jokes being made about the urine powered MFC. We'll laugh about the idea of using the bathroom to make a conference call, or company management asking employees to donate urine for a greater cause. But all jokes aside, this breakthrough may be more revolutionary than we can imagine right now.
The concept of recycling waste products for other purposes is something humanity has been working on for a while. And obviously, we've made great strides in developing useful technologies. However, in a world that is now driven by data and interconnectivity, electricity is becoming one of the most precious commodities on the planet. Being able to use waste products to generate electricity opens the door to untold potential.
All by itself, urine is unlikely to produce enough electricity to meet the demands of the digital age. But combined with current technologies and those yet to be developed, it's likely to be a major player in the decades to come. Perhaps our kids and grandkids will have to get used to taking a cup to the bathroom...