Technology

Powering Society With Poop and Pee

Have you ever had your power knocked out by a storm?  If so, you know that with no electricity, your lifestyle regresses about 100 years into the past.  And if you were out of gas, too, you’d be really stuck.  So I’m not exaggerating when I say that cheap and plentiful power is the lifeblood of our modern civilization!  The problem with power, of course, is that there’s not enough of it, and some people don’t have access to it at all.

I present you here with three of the latest attempts to resolve this problem.  Each uses a different mechanism, and has a different application.  But what they have in common is that they’re incredibly innovative, and they help to produce power where it’s needed most.  Oh, and they all depend on certain impolite bodily excretions.  Here’s how to generate power from…

Poop

Meet Ecobot III.  It’s still rudimentary, but it’s the latest version of a robot that consumes organic material to power itself (yes, a robot that eats).  It turns out that human poop is a perfectly fine organic material to use in this case.

Round robot on rails

via Wikimedia Commons

  • It Runs on WHAT? Raw sewage
  • How’s It Work?  It has microbial fuel cells, in which hungry microbes process organic material into electrons and protons, providing electricity
  • What’s It Good For? A sewage treatment robot could provide its own power from the sewage it’s working on.  The entire plant might one day be energy-independent, if enough power could be extracted.
  • Any Other Implications? A robot that can digest pretty much any old organic matter could keep itself powered indefinitely!  I don’t know about you, but I’d sleep easier knowing that my autonomous robot would eventually run out of gas.  Another downside is that even the robot cannot fully process human waste, and must periodically expel its own leftover material.  That’s right, our true future is finally revealed: it will be full of robot poop.

Pee

Incredibly, this pee-powered generator was invented by teenage students half my age.  The 3 Nigerian girls in the video below carry out electrolysis on human urine, then purify the resulting hydrogen.

  • It Runs on WHAT? The user’s pee
  • How’s it Work? A small initial current breaks up the compounds in the urine, releasing hydrogen gas, which is (highly) flammable and can be burned for power.
  • What’s It Good For? Provides households with electricity for lights and devices
  • Any Other Implications? Currently, the urine device isn’t energy-efficient enough  to be useful.  But with a refined design, it’s the kind of innovation that could change the lives of millions of Nigerians currently living without power.

Potato Peels

The Household Bio-Reactor is a novel power source that can use sewage – but it’s equally happy to make use of kitchen waste like potato peels and apple cores.

Click for Reuters report

Click for Reuters video report

  • It Runs on WHAT? Organic kitchen and bathroom waste
  • How’s it Work? Bacteria break down the waste, and excrete a diesel-like fuel that can run a generator.
  • What’s it Good For?  This could be useful anywhere, but its inventors want to see it put to use in disaster situations.
  • Any Other Implications?   Generator fuel is in short supply for people hit by a Sandy or a Katrina.  Likewise for people who are on the move, seeking refuge or just very poor.  But food waste and sewage are free and easy to come by, and could unlock all the health and safety benefits of electricity.

Pretty amazing devices, even if I do get queasy thinking about them.  What do you think of a future powered by waste?  Share this on Twitter or Facebook, then add your thoughts below.

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