Students and staff are being asked to use a prototype urinal to 'donate' urine to fuel microbial fuel cell (MFC) stacks that generate electricity to power lighting. The developers hope the pee-power technology will light toilet cubicles in refugee camps, where women are often at risk of assault in poorly lit sanitation areas. Matthew Stock reports.
After a few drinks, the call of nature inevitably beckons. But scientists from the University of the West of England believe urine isn't just the result of one-too-many, but also a potent energy source. This prototype pee-power toilet is harvesting human urine to generate electricity. Led by Professor Ioannis Ieropoulos, the scientists are working with aid agency Oxfam to install cubicles like this in refugee camps. (SOUNDBITE) (English) PROFESSOR IOANNIS IEROPOULOS, PRINCIPAL INVESTIGATOR, SAYING: "It's basically a live trial to demonstrate the microbial fuel cell technology over a long period of time; how it can continuously generate electricity from urine in real time." Male students are invited to use the urinal, which transports their urine down a pipe to storage containers underneath. There it's continuously cascaded through 288 microbial fuels cells. These hold live microbes which feed on urine and convert it into the electricity to power the cubicle's lighting. And to ensure a steady stream of donations, it's been positioned outside the student bar. Ierpolous says the student's urine could prove a particularly strong energy source. (SOUNDBITE) (English) PROFESSOR IOANNIS IEROPOULOS, PRINCIPAL INVESTIGATOR, SAYING: "We're hoping to see some improved performances from people coming out of the bar after the consumption of certain beverages." The team proved in 2013 that urine could partially power a mobile phone. Their latest microbial fuel cells are more efficient and cheaper to produce. They hope the technology could vastly improve women's safety in refugee camps that often have poorly lit sanitation zones. Oxfam's Andy Bastable says if it's successful, the technology could be rolled out more widely. (SOUNDBITE) (English) ANDY BASTABLE, HEAD OF WATER AND SANITATION AT OXFAM, SAYING: "In any poor community that doesn't have electricity at night it would be a game-changer for them." The prototype pee-power toilet will remain in situ for about three months to test its efficiency, with the first fully-function cubicle sent out to refugee camps later this year.