Smartphone Runs on Urine Power

by Matt Klassen on July 18, 2013

Aside from the last ditch hydration option for the beleaguered survivalist, our urine doesn’t have many uses, and I think most of us are content to keep it that way. But while it’s certainly an awkward topic, scientists at Bristol Robotics Laboratory in the U.K. have created a new use for our liquid waste, as a power source to charge our smartphones.

So how does it work? The power generation process begins when urine (or other organic matter) moves through a series of microbial fuel cells, which contain microbes that consume and metabolize the liquid into energy. The scientists are then able to transfer this energy into a capacitor, which in this case was able to provide a small charge to a Samsung smartphone.

While it may not yet be enough reason to give us pause before flushing the toilet, this pee pee powered energy source might just be the wave of the future; a truly eco-friendly, and endlessly renewable power source in a world where our fuel resources are being stretched thin.

But how does a microorganism’s consumption of our urine result in the creation of power? As Dr. Ioannis Ieropoulos, an expert at harnessing power from unconventional sources using microbial fuel cells from Bristol’s partner lab at the University of the West of England, explains, “The Microbial Fuel Cell is an energy converter, which turns organic matter directly into electricity, via the metabolism of live microorganisms. Essentially, the electricity is a by-product of the microbes’ natural life cycle, so the more they eat things like urine, the more energy they generate and for longer periods of time.”

At this point the Bristol scientists have been able to generate enough energy to deliver a small charge to a Samsung smartphone. “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,” said Ieropoulos.

Despite the low energy output the scientists were able to achieve, the fact that the baseline science is sound—that our urine can be used to generate electricity—means the next step is refining the process, looking for ways to increase power output and exploring practical applications for future use.

To that end, those involved in the project already conceive of future applications in public restrooms, where urine deposited into smart toilets, one’s equipped with these Microbial Fuel Cells, could be used to provide sufficient electricity to “power showers, lighting or razors as well as mobile phones.”

While I’m sure most of you are equal parts disgusted and intrigued—probably a little more of the former and a little less of the latter—the discovery of how to use urine to power at least some of our technological existence is a radical breakthrough, as there are few other resources available to us that are as plentiful and endlessly renewable. Like Doc Browns’ garbage-powered time machine in the Back to the Future series, it seems the future will indeed become a place were the “ultimate waste product” is transformed into a useful power source.

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Written by: Matt Klassen. Follow by: RSS, Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube.

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