Over the past 16 years, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been working to help people lead healthy, productive lives, specifically in developing countries, where it focuses on improving people's health and giving them the chance to lift themselves out of hunger and extreme poverty.
One such way that the organization has been trying to achieve this goal is by implementing new power production methods based on the re-use of human waste.
With the help of bacterial metabolism, urine can be transformed into electricity.
Now, researchers at the University of the West of England, along with Spanish researchers, and some funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, have implemented a test cubicle at the Glastonbury festival that implements a brand-new device that converts urine into electricity. The final goal of the project is to improve sanitation facilities in Developing World countries and in areas where there is limited electricity generation, such as refugee camps.
One of the public urinals installed this year at Glastonbury, the United Kingdom's largest music festival, is capable of generating enough electricity to light the cubicle's LED tubes using a system developed by scientists at the University of the West of England, Bristol.
"The technology in the prototype is based on microbial fuel cells, which, like batteries, has an anode and a cathode," said Irene Merino, a researcher on the team.
How It Works
The cells are installed inside of a container (toilet), currently only available for male users, which collects the urine. The bacteria settle in the anode electrode and act as a catalyst, decomposing the organic material in the urine.
This decomposition process releases protons, which travel from the anode to the cathode across a semipermeable membrane, and electrons, which travel through an external electrical circuit. The cycle is completed once an oxygen-reduction reaction takes place in the cathode, in effect, creating enough energy to power light bulbs or LED tubes.
"Our project is aimed at developing countries, with a view to improving or incorporating sanitary facilities. In addition to producing electricity, the system reduces chemical oxygen demand; in other words, it also serves to treat the urine," said Merino.
In the team’s experiments, the electricity generated was used to light the inside of the public urinals. In its first test cubicle, which was used on campus, the team generated an average of 75 mW. At Glastonbury, the prototype included 432 cells and generated 300 mW. Chemical oxygen demand removal was above 95% with the campus device and around 30% at the festival.
Now the researchers will test their urinals in India, as well as in some regions of Africa—specifically, at refugee camps, in communities, at schools and in public toilets that lack lighting.
"The ultimate purpose is to get electricity to light the toilets, and possibly also the outside area, in impoverished regions, which may help improve the safety of women and children, in countries where they have to use communal toilet facilities outside their homes," said Ioannis Ieropoulos, Director of the Bristol BioEnergy Centre, who leads the research.