The first person to invent a truly feasible substitute for fossil fuel as a source of energy, one that’s plentiful enough to last us for generations and clean enough to keep the atmosphere from overheating, will probably win a Nobel Prize. People in the scientific community aren’t sure this group of Nigerian teenage girls will be the next laureates, though. They’re also pretty suspicious that the magical mystery fuel that will save planet Earth is urine.
Let’s back up a second. This week a group of Nigerian teens unveiled a urine-powered generator at Maker Faire Africa in Lagos. (Maker Faire Africa is kind of like a science fair but hipper. They even have a hacking category.) But seriously, these girls say they’ve found a way to turn pee into electricity. Made of a store-bought generator, a makeshift battery, a couple of water purifiers, a rusty old propane tank and a lightbulb, their invention can evidently provide six hours of electricity with only a liter of urine. It’s unclear if other liquids will do the job, but clearly these girls know how to win some headlines. There’s nothing like human excrement to get the blogosphere’s attention!
Images via Maker Faire Africa
Unfortunately for the girls, the attention they’ve attracted is not very positive. Put simply, a lot of folks think the pee-powered generator is bunk. On one hand, this is what you get for inventing an unbelievable invention. On the other hand, it sort of sounds like the critics are right. Strikingly little is known about the pee-powered generator beyond what Maker Faire Africa has published on its website and without a video, seeing the thing in action is something that’s left to our imaginations. From the photos of the device, though, one commentator broke down the process and pointed out some problems.
The machine is supposed work by filtering urine into water pure enough for the hydrogen to be extracted. That hydrogen is what powers the internal combustion engine in the generator that produces electricity. The only problem with this workflow is that it’s been widely proven that it takes more energy to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen atoms than the resultant hydrogen fuel is able to produce. This is why the fabled water-powered car project never really got off the ground. The choice of urine as a fuel, as we said before, seems a bit arbitrary, since urine is 95 percent water and the remaining ingredients are just a mixture of urea and minerals that don’t really have any of the properties of a useful fuel. Furthermore, if these teenage girls were even able to extract the hydrogen using spare parts, the machine itself would be incredibly explosive and unsafe. Maker Faire Africa actually admitted that this is the case. For more details on what’s wrong with the machine, just check out the comments on their website. They’re remarkably thorough.
So maybe urine isn’t the fossil fuel replacement we’ve been waiting for. But we should at least give these girls a hand for building something so sophisticated for the science fair. Even if it doesn’t work, it sure looks impressive! And if it doesn’t work, they can always just drink their extra fuel. That definitely works.