Urine-powered toilet to light up disaster zones

A urine-powered toilet will soon be lighting up refugee camps after being tested by students in the UK.

The ground-breaking invention, which is the result of collaboration between global aid agency Oxfam and the University of West England in Bristol, uses live microbes that feed on urine and convert into energy.

How does it work?

Scientists developed microbial fuel cells that use bacteria grown on carbon fibre anodes that feed on urine, breaking it down to create energy stored in a capacitor.

In 2013, 24 of these cells were used to prove that the method could produce enough electricity to power a mobile phone. Today, scientists have utilised 288 fuel cells to light up a toilet, with plans to increase this to a 1000-unit device.

What does it look like?

The prototype cubicle is similar to the toilets currently used in refugee camps by Oxfam. The microbial fuels are stacked underneath the urinal and can be viewed through a clear screen.

Following successful testing by students in Bristol, the urine sample accumulated in the study produced enough electricity to power four LED light bulbs in the cubicle.

Why is a light-up cubicle needed?

Andy Bastable, head of water and sanitisation at Oxfam, states that better lighting is desperately needed in sanitation areas to protect women and girls living in refugee camps from the threat of attack and harassment when they use unlit communal toilets at night.

He said: “By lighting bits of the camp using this technology we can create a safe environment so that women can go out, use the toilets at night [and] do things at night in a safer environment.”1

What will happen next?

Oxfam aims to have the first toilet sent out to a refugee camp within the next six months. The initiative will then be rolled out more widely, initially in camps, but possibly also in other places without electricity.

“This urine bio-fuel cell technology could be used for many things, such as charging mobile phones [and] any applications involving a low electricity current like dosing pumps. It could be used outside of the camp environment; in any poor community that doesn’t have electricity at night, it would be a game-changer for them,” Bastable added.

1 WTAQ, 2015. Pee-power toilet to light up disaster zones. [online] Available at: http://wtaq.com/news/articles/2015/apr/20/pee-power-toilet-to-light-up-disaster-zones/. [Accessed 21st April 2015].

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