Near the end of his life, the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes was known to collect his urine in jars. New research suggests that he might not have been crazy—just ahead of the time.
Researchers with the University of the West of England and the Bristol Robotics Laboratory have developed a mechanism that harnesses electricity from human urine in amounts sufficient to operate a cell phone. And no—to quote the British colloquialism-—they're not taking the piss out of you.
Their work on urine, AKA "the ultimate waste product," has been published in the Journal of Physical Chemistry Chemical Physics.
The scientists' technique uses fuel cells that rely on bacteria to generate electricity. The bacteria are grown on carbon fiber anodes, which are stacked on top of each other in ceramic cylinders. As urine passes through the cylinders, the bacteria eat it, producing electricity that is then stored in small capacitors.
As Dr. Ioannis Ieropoulos, who was involved with the research, explained the process to The Daily Mail: "The electricity is a by-product of the microbes’ natural life cycle, so the more they eat things like urine, the more energy they generate and for longer periods of time."
"The beauty of this fuel source is that we are not relying on the erratic nature of the wind or the sun; we are actually re-using waste to create energy," he said.
Ieropoulos isn't the first to talk about recycling our biological waste—a group of Nigerian teens attracted a lot of attention, not all of it positive, for their own pee-powered generator. MIT's Microbial Fuel Cell Latrine faired better, but is still in the testing stages. And worms that harvest the power of feces are attracting the interest of energy and excrement producers alike.
It's nonetheless unclear whether the public could ever embrace such technologies, even if they were refined and perfected. Still, Ieropoulos and his colleagues are optimistic. They are currently in the process of bidding for funding to bring their technology to a loo near you, in the form of a "smart toilet."
As bizarre as that sounds, it could be just the beginning. With all this talk about the rise of wearable computing, there has been mention of electronic textiles, from which come so-called "smart pants." Might there be a day where the smart pants on our bodies recharge when we soil ourselves? Only time will tell.