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Sustainable Energy: Urine Power Could Be Africa’s Solution

An innovative design that makes use of microbial gas cells (MFC) to transform urine right into electrical energy might be the option for Africa where electricity is a luxury for many, in spite of it being a source that could further develop the region quickly.

Scientists have devised a way to turn urine into electricity, which could revolutionize the production of bioenergy, especially in developing countries.

Researchers at the University of Bath, Queen Mary University of London and the Bristol Bioenergy Centre, have created an innovative design that uses microbial fuel cells (MFC), that’s smaller, affordable renewable and environmentally friendly way of generating power.

The research which was published in Electrochimica Acta describes a new design that uses a tiny battery costing as little as £1-£2 (approx. $3) and is more powerful than traditional ones.

With increasing global pressures to reduce carbon-emanating energies like the overuse of fossils and the associated greenhouse gas emissions, MFC could be the alternative that can save the world from itself.

Why is this important for Africa?

Earlier in the year at a forum at Davos, African Development Bank President, Akinwumi Adesina confirmed that there are roughly 645 million people in Africa who do not have access to electricity. “An additional 700 million people do not have access to clean cooking fuel. These are numbers we know. And we think that this is not acceptable,” he said noting that many women and children have died because of using unclean cooking fuel.

Additionally, buying fuel for generators is not only expensive but also unreliable. Nigeria is one country that is currently struggling with oil crisis that has left people with little options for lighting their homes and businesses.

But this does not have to be the case. According to Andy Bastable, from Oxfam, the new development could be a massive step forward: “Fuel for generators is expensive. As urine is free, this an extremely low-cost and sustainable way of producing light for people at night.”

He noted that a human being produces 500 liters of pee every year, which is a lot and can always be collected.

How does it work?

The technology behind the process of turning pee into electricity is called Microbial Fuel Cells (MFC).

MFC uses natural biological processes of ‘electric’ bacteria to turn organic matter, such as urine, into electricity. Microbes feed on pee, and they produce electricity as a side-effect which can be used to power lights and electric devices.

The equipment that is used to collect urine is placed under the toilet. The urine passes through the microbial fuel cell for the electricity-generating reaction to happen. The electricity can then be stored or used to directly power electrical devices.

The process is cheaper, and according to Professor Ioannis Ieropoulos, who’s leading the project, the experiment could cost as little as £600 to set up. “This technology is in theory everlasting.”

“Microbial fuel cells have real potential to produce renewable bioenergy out of waste matter like urine,” said Dr Mirella Di Lorenzo, corresponding author of the study from the University of Bath. “The world produces huge volumes of urine, and if we can harness the potential power of that waste using microbial fuel cells, we could revolutionize the way we make electricity.”

Compared to other ways of producing bioenergy, including anaerobic digestion, fermentation, and gasification, microbial fuel cells have the advantage of working at room temperature and pressure. Furthermore, they’re efficient and produce less waste than the other methods.

On his part, lead author and a PhD student (University of Bath) Jon Chouler said MFC could be the solution for energy challenges in developing countries, particularly in impoverished and rural areas.

“To have created technology that can potentially transform the lives of poor people who don’t have access to, or cannot afford electricity, is an exciting prospect. I hope this will enable those in need to enjoy a better quality of life as a result of our research.”

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