Flushing our way to green shoots

By Dan O’Sullivan

Yep, there it is – urine. That’s our latest answer to the planet’s ever-growing need for low-cost renewable technology, as wee is slowly emerging as a feasible option for the future when it comes to ‘clean’ energy.  

With this blog having already explored the viability of other human excreta when it comes to the sustainable makeover of our homes, it seems that the body now has even more to offer our green ambitions.  Scientists have been busy finding a better use for our liquid waste that goes beyond flushing it into the Thames, and it turns out that they may have finally found a breakthrough.

Without wanting to go into too much detail when it comes to the science – nor, indeed, where the investigators gathered their ‘materials’ from – the idea does need explaining. Essentially, nutrients capable of playing a role in generating electricity can be found in the fine specimens of ‘number one’ produced by both humans and animals alike.

Obviously, the process isn’t as simple as relieving yourself into a metal box that suddenly becomes a big, low carbon, electrical pool of energy. The method scientists have come up with involves using fuel cells that contain bacteria capable of breaking down organic molecules found in urine, and these can be used to generate electricity within said cells.

With the process being developed by the Scientists at Bristol’s Robotics Laboratorystill in its infancy, the idea is that it would initially work on a small, localised scale as a means to first gauge effectiveness and public response.  But the Bristolians are not the only boffins on the case. The BBC reported last year that a team at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh were looking at pee-powering vehicles, as opposed to the localised microgeneration being explored in Bristol. But the more, the merrier.

The Brsitol work has highlighted certain societal and financial issues that could arise from attempted widespread implementation, as toilets that are capable of separating urine don’t come cheap. In addition, there’s also the question of people’s willingness to separate their urine, and the steps necessary to do so.

Irrespective of this, there’s clearly potential here. The technology might be in its early stages, but if we can help produce electricity every time we nip off for a Jimmy Riddle, the scope of our renewable future widens that little bit further. Beyond this, there’s also the scientist’s argument that this will save significant sums of money and energy when it comes to wastewater treatment.

Vast amounts of energy are required for the expensive wastewater treatment that is needed to remove organic elements from urine, so by replacing this process with a system that actually generates electricity, we’d be making impressive strides.

If we’re being honest, the use of this as a widespread solution to cutting carbon and moving towards renewables seems questionable, but there’s still a long way to go. Should it prove effective and wee become the new and improved oil, companies would have no difficulty in collecting barrels of the stuff from Croydon high street on a Saturday night.

By looking into these sorts of options, we can see that we’re constantly broadening our horizons when it comes to building a green future. The idea may seem laughable, but if an energy crisis is to develop, this could quickly become a very valid possibility; cutting energy and monetary costs from wastewater treatment, and instead using renewable means to make the most of what we have. If this works, we would not be urinating into the proverbial wind in pursuit of varied renewable technology, but actually aiming in the right direction.