In all our lives, we've four primary constants: we need to eat, we need to sleep, we need to charge our electronics, and we need to go to the washroom.
What if we could merge the last two processes? That seems to be the core of some rather fascinating research being carried out at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory - the result of collaboration between the University of Bristol and the University of West England. Their work, it seems, recently reached a milestone: the ability to charge a cell phone with urine. That might sound a little absurd at first, but once you stop to think of the implications...
Right, I'm going to just come out and say it: pee has never been this cool.
"We are very excited, as this is a world first," exclaimed UWE Bristol's Dr. Ioannis Ieropoulos. "No one has harnessed power from urine to do this, so it's an exciting discovery. Using the ultimate waste product as a source of power to produce electricity is about as eco as it gets."
"One product that we can be sure of an unending supply of is our own urine," he continued. "By harnessing this power as urine passes through a cascade of microbial fuel cells, we have managed to charge a Samsung mobile phone. The beauty of this fuel source is that we are not relying on the erratic nature of the wind or sun; we are actually re-using waste to create energy."
"So far the microbial fuel power stack that we have developed generates enough power to enable SMS messaging, web browsing and to make a brief phone call. Making a call on a mobile phone takes up the most energy but we will get to the place where we can charge a battery for longer periods. The concept has been tested and it works - it's now for us to develop and refine the process so that we can develop MFCs to fully charge a battery."
A Microbial Fuel Cell converts organic matter to electricity through the presence of micro-organisms within. These organisms, on consuming something like urine, generate electricity as a by-product. The more urine they consume, the more power they produce.
Now, the technology is still very much in its nascent stages, so we're not likely to see anything going to market from it for a little while yet. The output from these organisms is still relatively small, after all - though that's something the team's working on. In the future, the researchers eventually hope to see people powering their bathroom electronics, showers, and cell phones - perhaps even their entire houses - simply by peeing into the toilet.
Currently, the project has received funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the Gates Foundation, and the Technology Strategy Board. The team is now searching for funding from partners in the United States and South Africa in hopes that they can collaborate on a Smart Toilet.