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NewsEnvironmentThe power of pee: Scientists investigate urine as a renewable power source

The power of pee: Scientists investigate urine as a renewable power source

SCIENTISTS are investigating the capabilities of elements found in human urine to power waste water treatment facilities.

Experts at The James Hutton Institute are contributing their own urine to experiment its potential to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions – thanks to a newly installed urinal.

Wastewater treatment facilities in the UK use energy intensive processes reliant on fossil fuels, which release greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide.

Microbes found within urine can produce energy, which can in turn be used to power sewage treatment.

Man using urine in experiment
Microbes within urine have the capability to replace fossil fuels in producing electricity and self-power the sewage treatment process

The facility is housed at the independent research organisation’s Aberdeen campus, and is collecting urine from staff to help advance a wastewater treatment technology using power-producing common microbes.

Every day in the UK, more than 11bn litres of wastewater is treated at about 9k sewage treatment facilities.

By putting the microbes used to munch through wastewater contaminants into an electrical circuit, Hutton researchers have shown that those greenhouse emissions could be halved, while also producing some power.

Dr Xavier Alexis Walter’s experiments, focusing on wastewater treatment, require about 3.3 litres of urine per day (an average well hydrated person passes around 2.2 litres over 24 hours), which is why the urinal has been installed.

A form of the technology has already been trialled to power lighting in a toilet block at an isolated school in Africa, after being successfully trialled over several years at Glastonbury Music Festival, using festival goers’ urine.

Dr Walter’s latest work, in collaboration with Scottish Water and the University of Glasgow, was funded by the Hydro Nation Chair Research & Innovation Programme, and hosted by the University of Stirling through their Catalyst Fund.

The Catalyst Fund provides valuable pump priming funds to develop proof of concepts, trial and test technology solutions and leverage new funding to deliver next generation solutions to support Scottish Water’s ambitions to realise net zero.

Dr Walter, the senior researcher leading the project at the Hutton, said: “An estimated 1-3% of the UK’s electricity production is used in wastewater treatment, mostly in cities where the wastewater has to be aerated.

“We could potentially decrease this consumption significantly by using the natural electro-chemical capability of microbes to self-power the process.

“In large cities, where urban farming is becoming more popular – and necessary – we could replace more energy intensive treatment processes and also tweak the process to draw off nitrogen that can be used as fertiliser.”

Professor Andrew Tyler FRSE, Scotland Hydro Nation Chair at the University of Stirling, said: “As one of our first Hydro Nation Chair Catalyst Funded projects, following our Crucible on Process Emissions, we are excited by the research being delivered by Dr Walter.

“When funding this project, we were encouraged by the potential impact on offer from the dual stages and significant nitrous-oxide mitigation that could be possible.

“We are delighted that Dr Walter’s ambitions are being realised.”

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