Researchers of University of Bath have Developed New Bacteria-Powered Fuel Cells which can Generate Electricity from Human Waste – Urine

Most people would agree that fossil fuels simply need to go. They’re the cause of pollution, wars, and climate change. Scientists have been researching alternative energy solutions like wind and solar power, and hydrogen fuel for cars, for years. 

Presently, over seven billion people populate our planet, which means on average around 10.5 billion liters (2.8 billion gallons) of human urine is produced and wasted each day. It’s the equivalent of 4,200 Olympic-sized swimming pools if anyone was counting. In fact, some scientists are – and if they have their way, our human waste will be wasted no more.   

We could harness the power from the urine in near future, as new bacteria-powered fuel cells have been developed by the researchers at the University of Bath – an innovative miniature fuel cell that can generate electricity from urine, creating an affordable, renewable and carbon-neutral way of generating power.  

To extract energy from excrement, the team developed small, microbial fuel cells that exploit the biological process of bacteria to generate electricity from organic matter. The researchers claim their design is cheaper and more powerful than similar devices.  

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Dr. Mirella Di Lorenzo and chemical engineering Ph.D. student Jon Chouler at the University of Bath
(Image credit: Dailymail.co.uk)  

Measuring just one square inch, these fuel cells are made with a carbon catalyst created from glucose and ovalbumin (a protein found in egg whites) rather than platinum, which is often used in microbial fuel cells. Glucose and ovalbumin are renewable and significantly cheaper than the platinum alternative.  

This device could provide a means of generating much-needed electricity to remote areas at very little cost; each device costs just £1-£2. With growing global pressures to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and the associated greenhouse gas emissions, microbial fuel cells could be an exciting alternative.  

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The researchers hold their device, which could potentially provide electricity to remote areas of the world at very little cost. (Image Credit: Tim Gander / University of Bath)  

A microbial fuel cell is a device that uses natural biological processes of ‘electric’ bacteria to turn organic matter, such as urine, into electricity. These fuel cells are efficient and relatively cheap to run and produce nearly zero waste compared to other methods of electricity generation.  

In practice, urine will pass through the microbial fuel cell for the reaction to happen. From here, electricity is generated by the bacteria which can then be stored or used to directly power electrical devices.  

A lecturer in the University of Bath’s Department of Chemical Engineering and corresponding author, Dr. Mirella Di Lorenzo, said: “If we can harness the potential power of this human waste, we could revolutionize how electricity is generated.  

Research carried out by the University of Bath’s Department of Chemical Engineering was recently ranked sixth nationally for impact by the 2014 Research Excellence Framework, an independent assessment of UK university research activity.  

The full research paper ‘Towards effective small scale microbial fuel cells for energy generation from urine’ published in Electrochimica Acta can be viewed online at ac.ele-cdn.com. (Credit: University of Bath)


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