Call of nature – Bristol scientists charge up mobile phone using urine

July 17, 2013

Bristol scientists have made a world-leading breakthrough – by using urine to charge mobile phone batteries. They are calling urine the ultimate waste product as it freely available and will never run out and believe charging mobiles could just be the first of a host of gadgets to be powered in this way.

The team at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory – jointly run by Bristol University and UWE –say the technology could in future be installed into domestic bathrooms to harness urine and produce sufficient electricity to power showers, lighting or razors as well as mobile phones.

The technology uses Microbial Fuel Cells (MFC) which turn organic matter directly into electricity.

Dr Ioannis Ieropoulos from UWE said: “Using the ultimate waste product as a source of power to produce electricity is about as eco as it gets. No-one has harnessed power from urine to do this so it’s an exciting discovery.

“The beauty of this fuel source is that we are not relying on the erratic nature of the wind or the sun; we are actually re-using waste to create energy.

“So far the microbial fuel power stack that we have developed generates enough power to enable SMS messaging, web browsing and to make a brief phone call. Making a call on a mobile phone takes up the most energy but we will get to the place where we can charge a battery for longer periods. 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.”

MFC are energy converters which turn organic matter directly into electricity, via the metabolism of live microorganisms. Essentially, the electricity is a by-product of the microbes’ natural life cycle, so the more they eat things like urine, the more energy they generate and for longer periods of time; so it's beneficial to keep doing it! The electricity output from MFCs is relatively small and so far we have only been able to store and accumulate these low levels of energy into capacitors or super-capacitors, for short charge/discharge cycles. This is the first time we have been able to directly charge the battery of a device such as a mobile phone and it is indeed a breakthrough. The team made the news in 2011 when it emerged Microsoft’s Bill Gates bought into the Bristol-based research.

The Robotics Laboratory received funding through Grand Challenges Explorations, the initiative created by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation enabling researchers worldwide to test unorthodox ideas that address persistent health and development challenges.

Meanwhile, in 2010, an EPSRC Career Acceleration Fellowship Grant worth £564,561 was awarded to the team for their four-year project.


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