If you want to have the most talked-about phone among your friends, British researchers have come up with an innovative way to guarantee you get most of the attention. They've managed to power a smartphone with human urine.
For years, researchers at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, a collaboration of of the University of the West of England and the University of Bristol, have been working on the microbial fuel cell or MFC, in which bacteria decompose organic material and produce power. The team has determined that human urine is the optimal fuel for this cell, in which microbes devour the urine and generate energy.
Team leader and senior research fellow Dr. Ioannis Ieropoulos has told news media that "urine is chemically very active, rich in nitrogen and has compounds such as urea, chloride, potassium and bilirubin," which he said worked well in MFC's.
This week, after years of research and no small amount of urine, the researchers have successfully generated more than the tiny amounts of power they had managed in previous experiments. Those early attempts had resulted in low levels of energy that were then stored in capacitors. Now, the researchers have managed to charge a Samsung smartphone.
Ieropoulos said that the microbial fuel power stack now "generates enough power to enable SMS messaging, web browsing and to make a brief phone call." He added that making a phone call requires the most amount of energy but "we will get to the place" where the battery can be charged for longer periods.
In addition to those occasions at concerts when your cell phone battery has been drained, your bladder is full, and the line to the restroom as long, a urine powered battery could be useful in rural areas in developing countries, where power sources are fairly rare.
Is That Coming from You?
Don't laugh: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been providing funding for this research, along with British governmental sources, because it could also power small lights and other small devices in those areas. One can also imagine astronauts, whose lives depend on reusing every waste product, incorporating such technology into their voyages. Dr. Ieropoulos has also suggested batteries could be refilled in everyday bathrooms, and he has told news media that the team is currently bidding for funding to develop a smart toilet.
Dr. Ieropoulos has pointed out several other advantages to using urine as a fuel source, including the ecological virtue points and the indisputable fact that, while solar and wind energy vary by season and geography, there's always a -- how should we say this? -- steady stream of available urine wherever there are people using devices.
At the moment, however, the researchers have not addressed the question of whether carrying what amounts to a small container of urine in your pocket could have olfactory ramifications that counters any positive attention you get from your friends.