Okay, this is gross…and yet intriguing. We all know, when you have to go, you have to go. But imagine your cell phone is dying at the same time you need to urinate. Then imagine using the waste product to recharge your phone.
Dr. Ioannis Ieropoulos from the University of West England at Bristol is an expert in the field of harnessing power from unusual sources using microbial fuel cells.
“We are very excited as this is a world first, no-one has harnessed power from urine to do this so it’s an exciting discovery. Using the ultimate waste product as a source of power to produce electricity is about as eco as it gets,” Ieropoulos says.
I’m resisting the temptation to make toilet jokes here. Although the method is kind of, well, yucky, it addresses a very real problem: Cell phones run out of power very quickly, and users don’t always have access to power outlets. Modern smartphones and other mobile devices require more energy than ever before because of their bigger screens and more powerful processors, among other things.
Ieropoulos and his colleages have developed a microbial fuel cell that breaks down urine and in the process generates small amounts of electricity, which is a byproduct of the lifecycle of certain microbes.
“The more they eat things like urine, the more energy they generate and for longer periods of time,” says Ieropoulos, who explains his project in the video above.
In early trials, the fuel cells developed enough power to enable SMS messaging, Web browsing and to make a brief phone call, Ieropoulos says. “The concept has been tested and it works – it’s now for us to develop and refine the process so that we can develop MFCs to fully charge a battery.”
For now, the charging station is far too big to carry, and even if it cannot be slimmed down, there is another potential use. Charging stations that use the fuel cells could be used in the developing world, where there’s little electricity, but people still need to charge cell phones. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which funds many projects in the developing world, is reportedly helping to fund this work and lend some credibility to the idea.
San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. His work appears regularly in CIO.com and the publications of Stanford's Graduate School of Business and the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley. He welcomes your comments and suggestions.