In late 2012, a class science project in Lagos, Nigeria created a buzz on the social media airwaves. Four teenage girls had created a power generator using human urine. The 14- and 15-year-olds, who created the project in an effort to find a safer generating system for local families that depend on gas-powered systems to generate electricity, figured out a way to separate and use the hydrogen from pee to essentially create electricity.
The girls were immediately hailed as forward-thinking budding scientists, and their project was showcased by Maker Faire Africa. The news also kicked off a long list of blog posts and articles (that are still surfacing) discounting the girls’ accomplishments. Geraldine Botte, a chemical engineer at the University of Ohio whose research first highlighted the possibility of urea electrolysis, pointed out that while the students’ actions were “empowering,” it was really “a high school project.” She went on to add that, “you will never get more energy out than you put in because you are treating urea.”
Another observer, Nathan Lee (no relation whatsoever) went even further, and with an energy typical of many of the blogs that have strived to brush off the students’ thoughtful work, gave a full-page account of why this was really nothing more than a “quack gadget” and little more than a “bong [fashioned] out of an Orchy bottle.” He did add, however, that he would be “happy to be proved wrong and we can finally harness the [guys] who piss in the street and the urinal at the pub could run the lights. Anyone else got any thoughts?”
Apparently, someone else did, and their names are Bill and Melinda Gates.
In December 2013, after Bristol Robotics Laboratory in the U.K. announced that it had developed a way to fuel a cell phone from pee, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation awarded Bristol Robotics Lab $100,000 toward the further development of “urine-tricity.”
Their methodology (which uses microbial cells as energy converters) is considerably more technical than that of the young scientists from Nigeria. It has also been able to stand up to some rather rigorous scientific scrutiny. So far at this point, the challenge for Dr. Ioannis Ieropoulos, Prof. John Greenman, Prof. Chris Melhuish and their Bristol Robotics team is to find a way to raise the sustained level of generation and power things greater than a phone call.
Urea electrolysis isn’t new. It’s been around for some years, thanks to Dr. Botte and others that apparently aren’t subject to the “ick” factor that most of us experience when we think of powering our computers or our toaster with pee. While there have been plenty of jokes to go around about four girls from a small village developing a way to save lives from carbon monoxide poisoning, I am looking forward to seeing what they develop next. For all the hype and the grief they received from social media, their real contribution was reminding the scientific world and philanthropists like the Gates of the human factor that made this particular research so timely and so critical. And that’s worth more than a science fair award.
Image credit: Erik (Hash) Hersman