Thinking Tech

Waste not: new tech taps energy from urine

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Researchers at Ohio University have developed a technology to produce fuel from, of all things, urine.

From biofuels to bacteria, scientists have tinkered with a wide array of possibilities in an ever-urgent quest for alternative fuels. So it shouldn't be too surprising that researchers at Ohio University have developed a technology to produce fuel from --of all things -- urine!

In an odd way, byproducts are an ideal source of energy. They're renewable, and whether through artificial or natural means, are constantly being generated anyway. So instead of letting the waste accumulate and take up disposal space, a growing number of companies have already began recycling it as fuel.

For instance, beermaker Anheuser-Busch, has a bio-energy recovery system that turns wastewater into natural gas, which is then used to power the brewing process. And Amtrak now has trains that run on a biofuel blend that includes converted beef byproducts.

This latest idea involves extracting hydrogen by simply running an electrical current through the stuff that typical ends up in the toilet. The process is similar to the electrolysis of water to produce hydrogen for fuel cells, except that it requires less energy since hydrogen can be more easily separated from ammonia and urea, the chemical compounds present in urine.

Gerardine Botte, a researcher at Ohio University who came up with the idea, thinks the technology can not only be a convenient way to supply, ahem, clean energy, but also gets at the problem of municipal waste disposal. In an interview with the Guardian, she talks about pee power's enormous potential:

Botte's technology has the greatest potential for power generation in settings where large numbers of people gather - airports and sports stadiums, for example. An office building with 200 to 300 workers could generate 2 kilowatts of power, Botte has calculated. Granted, that's not enough to power the building, but every drop in the bucket helps.

The approach could also address pollution associated with animal feedlots. The urine produced by 1,000 cows could generate 40 to 50 kilowatts of power, Botte estimates - getting rid of noxious ammonia in the process.

Her recently launched venture, E3 clean technologies has plans to build a "GreenBox" prototype that can be sold to companies and city agencies by the end of 2012.

Photo: Stock.Xchng

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Tuan Nguyen

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Tuan C. Nguyen is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. He has written for the U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, AOL, Yahoo! News and LiveScience. Formerly, he was reporter and producer for the technology section of ABCNews.com. He holds degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure