Gee Whiz! New Fuel Cells Process Urine into Light and Clean Water

Gee Whiz! New Fuel Cells Process Urine into Light and Clean Water

As you likely already know, dear reader, we on the DFC home front live deep in the wilds of the Frontenac Arch Biosphere. Transitioning from suburban Toronto a couple years ago was a bit of a culture shock, but we’ve gotten quite comfortable with our new, more sustainable, digs! The only thing I still find myself concerned about, as someone who spent her whole life quietly supported by a municipal wastewater system, is our septic tank. There has to be something more environmentally helpful than a metal box under our back lawn that gets pumped out periodically by a big dieselly truck! And something a little, well, cooler than a standard composting waste system
That is why I love this news from the University of the West of England, who, in partnership with Oxfam, is running a trial of a new kind of fuel cell: one that generates electricity from human urine
The trial urinals have already shown they can generate enough power to light the bathrooms in which they were located. But there are further possible applications: Indisaster situations, where portable toilets could provide lighting to help prevent accidents and assault, or could even charge a cell phone. And amazingly, a side effect of the electricity-generating process in these “microbial fuel cells” appears to kill pathogens in the waste water — which means toilets with these cells could someday prove a source of potable water as well.

“This disinfection potential gave the UWE team an idea to systematically test how [microbial fuel cells] could be used to purify wastewater. For this, they picked one of the most important gastrointestinal pathogens, a strain of the Salmonella bacterium which causes typical food poisoning symptoms.

‘This species was introduced into an MFC cascade system treating human urine, to determine the anodic killing efficacy when operating in continuous flow conditions,’ the researchers write in the study.

When they checked the outflow at the end of the purification process to measure the remaining pathogen levels, they found just what they had hoped for – greatly reduced Salmonella counts.”
The Salmonella numbers were so reduced they actually fell under the “safe” level of conventional sanitation standards. This concept could be a game-changer: the team planned a further, profile-raising trial at Glastonbury Music festival that seems to have gone well. Worldwide, this could end up being the little can that could — thanks to science!