Energy Can Come From Unexpected Places

Energy can come from unexpected places. I’m talking really unexpected. After all, we’ve seen energy derived from seaweed, waves, corn, piezoelectric floor tiles, and even heat from sewer systems. But this invention caught me by surprise. According to Grist.org, a group of four teenage girls in Africa have built a generator that converts urine into electricity. Talk about working with what you’ve got!

This generator is said to convert one liter of urine into six hours of energy (although how much energy this generator puts our per hour is not stated). How, you ask? Here’s a basic outline of the process:

 

  1. An electrolytic cell (a cell that utilizes electrolysis – e.g. where an electric current is passed through a system in order to breakdown a chemical compound) breaks down urea (non-water elements of urine) into nitrogen, water, and hydrogen.
  2. The hydrogen is purified using a filter and is then pushed into a gas cylinder.
  3. From the gas cylinder, the hydrogen is pushed into a cylinder of liquid borax, which removes any moisture from the gas.
  4. The purified hydrogen gas is then pushed to a generator, where it produces electricity.

People around the world have responded very enthusiastically to this invention – after all, it creates electricity from a readily available and renewable resource. But others caution the public about getting too excited. According to Gerardine Botte, inventor of the urea electrolysis process used in the contraption, urine yields less energy than is required to produce it. For now. Who knows what technological advances will make possible in the coming years? But as it stands, energy inputs outweigh outputs in the urea electrolysis process.

Don’t let that fact get you down, though. There are still practical applications for this technology today. Botte suggests it be used to make wastewater treatment more energy efficient. The wastewater treatment process needs energy in order to operate, and it obviously has access to copious amounts of urea. If urea electrolysis devices are installed in wastewater treatment plants, hydrogen could be extracted from the urine during water treatment, and the hydrogen could then be used to generate electricity for the plant. Working with resources readily on-hand  (and a bit of new technology), treatment plants could reduce the amount of outside energy required for wastewater treatment. It may not be possible to make plants completely energy self-sufficient using this technology, but every little bit of energy efficiency and renewable energy helps!

This contraption isn’t the answer to our energy troubles, but it is an empowering example of the human ingenuity that will guide us to a more sustainable future.

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