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She says it takes more energy to extract hydrogen from urine than you end up getting in return as electricity. The energy equation gets even more skewed by the inefficiency of the generator used in the girls’ project.
‘At first glance, they’re not having a net gain in energy,’ Botte says. ‘But I think it’s important to say that these little girls, trying to do something like this, deserve a lot of credit.’
The idea behind the humble urine-powered generator is along the lines of Botte’s own thinking, and her research is all about efficient ways to break urine down into its useful components.
Once the urine is processed, purified hydrogen gas is pushed into the generator. (Credit: makerfaireafrica.com)
Botte’s approach is to use electrolysis of urea as a method of wastewater treatment. She says her process for converting urine into potable water is more cost effective and more energy efficient than current wastewater treatment methods. Pure hydrogen is produced as a byproduct and can be used in generating electricity.
‘You cannot get net energy gain, but there is no more efficient way to get clean water from urine,’ Botte says.
Botte founded E3 Clean Technologies in 2011 to work on scaling the process for use by municipalities and others.
The U.S. Department of Defense is trying out a portable system from E3 at military bases in remote areas, as both a way to treat wastewater and generate power. The system, which Botte calls GreenBox technology, converts a soldier’s urine into drinking water.
‘At forward operating bases, the main needs are water and fuel,’ Botte says. ‘With this project, they’re doing both: using less energy to reutilize water sources.’
So, when put in the context of wastewater treatment, the concept of using urine as a hydrogen source to produce energy has great potential.
Since wastewater treatment plants already collect the raw material needed – urine – extracting hydrogen from it makes sense, Botte says. Doing so could regain some of the vast amounts of energy already being spent all over the world to treat waste.
‘You will never get more energy out than you put in,’ she says. ‘But it is a unique and elegant way to treat urine waste, which will allow you to co-generate electricity.’
To give you a sense of how much energy it is possible to recapture from this method of treating urine, Botte offers this:
‘At Ohio University, where there are about 22,000 students, if we would collect the urine and produce hydrogen, we would be able to produce enough electricity to perhaps power about 100 to 150 residential houses for a year, continuously.’
Consider that before you dismiss what the enterprising teens did with their own project.
Maybe, as the technology evolves, it could be applied to vehicles someday. Gasoline-powered internal combustion engines can be converted relatively easily to run on hydrogen, which raises the question of whether there is potential for pee-powered cars in the future.
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