UK Scientists Power Phone with Urine

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Marco Werman: In the future, recharging your smartphone might be as simple as excusing yourself to the restroom. I can hear you scratching your head. Let me explain. This is what Ioannis Ieropoulos is hoping. He's with the Bristol Robotics Laboratory in England and he's been researching microbial fuel cell technology. That is a mouthful, but what it means is turning organic waste like urine, into energy, which Ieropoulos and his colleagues have done generating enough oomph to power a phone.
So Ioannis set this up for me, how did you turn urine into energy?

Ioannis Ieropoulos: Microbial fuel cell is an energy converter so organic waste gets turned into electricity, and that's done by the live bacteria that we have inside the microbial fuel cell which break down urine and electricity is a byproduct of their metabolic processes.

Werman: So you're putting microbes into urine and that's what creates the energy.

Ieropoulos: We put microbes into the microbial fuel cells and then we feed those microbial fuel cells with urine. That's how it's turned into electricity.

Werman: So you're actually able to charge a cell phone, and are we talking like full bars here?

Ieropoulos: We managed to get two out of five from 12 microbial fuel cells, which up until then we didn't believe it was possible.

Werman: So what's preventing you from getting a full charge? Where are things falling down?

Ieropoulos: It's just a matter of adding more microbial fuel cells together. Although we didn't get five out of five, we got two out of five, we were still able to make and receive phone calls, send and receive text messages, browse the web, transfer some files over Bluetooth and play some music.

Werman: Wow, that's a promising start. I mean, how big do you think these batteries could get? Enough to power a car someday?

Ieropoulos: That's definitely the vision Marco, that's where we want to go. Not just a car, we want to see microbial fuel cells installed at the back garden of households treating the wastewater produced from that household to generate electricity for the lighting or for DC appliances in that household. And further down the line, why not think about wastewater treatment plants, which are generating electricity?

Werman: Yeah, it sounds really cool, really groundbreaking, and you know, we've been reporting on this program about consistent power in electricity being one of the biggest concerns many developing countries face. I can only imagine how this would change that game.

Ieropoulos: Oh, absolutely, we're talking about remote communities whose toilet facilities are basically a hole in the ground. And to be able to turn that into something useful, for people to go and plug in their mobile phones, get them charged, or have a cubicle around that hole in the ground and have the lighting going on in the evening from the energy generated from the waste, that's where we want to go.

Werman: Wow. How about overcoming those odd consumer feelings that might pop up about, you know, using batteries that are made of pee?

Ieropoulos: Well, the clear message is something which goes down the loo, which up until now is a waste, how about thinking about it as a resource that will give us useful electricity.

Werman: And speaking of going down the loo, I imagine that doing this research there were some, probably, funny stories about collecting the urine. How did you collect it?

Ieropoulos: Yes indeed, quite funny stories in that sense. One of the things that we had to overcome here in the UK was the license because urine contains human tissue, and therefore it falls under the human tissue act. So we had to go through an elaborate process to get that license granted, and we had to prove that people could not tamper with collected urine, believe it or not.

Werman: Wow, yeah, so that must have been somewhat challenging.

Ieropoulos: Yes.

Werman: Ioannis Ieropoulos, great to speak with you. Thanks a lot.

Ieropoulos: Thank you Marco.