Researchers have devised a toilet that uses urine to make electricity. Their sustainable energy invention, which offers a practical solution to the 2.5 billion people worldwide who have no access to safe sanitation, could dramatically change the way people view waste and energy.

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Urine is a free, plentiful resource for sustainable energy-making.

A prototype of the "pee-powered" toilet is conveniently sited near the Student Union Bar at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol), not far from the robotics lab that devised it.

The researchers are inviting staff and students to use the toilet to donate urine to fuel microbial fuel cell stacks that make electricity to power indoor lighting.

The team - led by Ioannis Ieropoulos, a UWE professor and director of the Bristol BioEnergy Centre in UWE's Bristol Robotics Laboratory - is developing the technology with aid charity Oxfam to provide electric light in cubicles in refugee camps.

Toilets in refugee camps are often dangerous places, especially for women, because of their poor lighting.

Microbial fuel cells feed on urine to make electricity

The microbial fuel cells contain live microbes that feed on urine. The cells tap a portion of the biochemical energy that the microbes use for growth and converts it into electricity. Hence the name of the project: "urine-tricity: electricity from urine."

Prof. Ieropoulos says the "technology is about as green as it gets, as we do not need to utilize fossil fuels and we are effectively using a waste product that will be in plentiful supply."

The team has already proved that microbial fuel cells can make electricity. In 2013, they showed it could power a mobile phone. Now, they hope the new project will make a huge impact in refugee camps.

The technology's main advantage is that it is cheap, sustainable and uses a fuel that is abundant and freely available in refugee camps - urine.

To make the trial as realistic as possible, the toilet cubicle installed on the UWE campus looks like the ones that Oxfam set up in refugee camps. The microbial fuel cells sit under the cubicle and can be seen through a clear screen.

The pee-powered toilet is a potential game changer

"One microbial fuel cell costs about £1 [$1.5] to make, and we think that a small unit like the demo we have mocked up for this experiment could cost as little as £600 [$915] to set up, which is a significant bonus as this technology is in theory everlasting," says Prof. Ieropoulos.

Andy Bastable, head of water and sanitation at Oxfam, explains that his organization has a lot of experience in setting up sanitation in disaster zones where "it is always a challenge to light inaccessible areas far from a power supply." He says:

"This technology is a huge step forward. Living in a refugee camp is hard enough without the added threat of being assaulted in dark places at night. The potential of this invention is huge."

He says if the trial is successful, the pee-powered toilet could be a game-changer for the provision of sanitation facilities, not just in refugee camps, but also in displaced camps, and many agencies will be interested in using it.

In the following video, Bastable and Prof. Ieropoulos talk about the project and the trial:

The project receives funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

In January 2015, Medical News Today learned how another team of researchers is also developing a potential game-changing invention - a lab in a suitcase for Ebola testing that can be used in the field to provide much-needed rapid diagnosis of the deadly disease.