The impatient optimist: Urine-tricity to light humanitarian camps

Andy Bastable Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH)

In this blog we’re introduced to two sides of the ‘Urine-tricity’ story. Firstly, we hear from Oxfam’s Head of Water and Sanitation Andy Bastable, who shares his eager observations on the project, which produces electrical power from urine. To conclude,  Ioannis Ieropoulos, Professor of Bioenergy and Self-sustainable Systems at University of the West of England, maps out the history of the research and where it’s heading. 

I first came across the University of the West of England (UWE) Urine-tricity project at the second Gates Foundation ‘Reinvent the Toilet Fair’ in Delhi in 2014. I was fascinated. I had heard of the bio-fuel cell technology before and Oxfam had worked with a lecturer at Glasgow University using poo to power a light bulb, but that didn’t progress very far. Meeting the UWE team, I was surprised to hear just how much time and money The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation had put into developing this technology with UWE – it showed great foresight and an appetite for risk.

My initial questions were around what they were going to do with the technology. Yannis from UWE had many ideas around what it could be used for, so many that it was not obvious what a clear achievable goal would be. My next question was – could it light latrines? I was thinking of all the refugee camps around the world that have no lights at night, and of all the women who are afraid to go to the toilet after dark.

Initially we thought that lighting latrines using the bio-fuel cell technology would be the answer. However, when we analysed what makes women feel safer in these environments, it is lighting across the camp not solely within the latrine. So, Oxfam put forward our need for the technology to light at least a 6 metre radius around the urinal or urine diversion toilet. The idea being to install enough of these toilets around a camp or a slum with the bio-fuel cells attached that we could light the whole area. Unfortunately, the technology is not quite able to do this yet. What can be done now is lighting inside the toilet, which is a good step forward but not quite there as far as women’s safety is concerned.

We wait, a little impatiently, for UWE to develop the bio-fuel cells to a point where we can light camps. In the future we’d like to see it charging mobile phones,and  then small electrical appliances – all for a small start up cost, and a minimal (virtually free) operation and maintenance cost. The first trial of internal toilet cubicle lighting  will be in late 2016-17 with an Oxfam partner, SOIL, in Haiti. After this, we hope the technology will be ready for outdoor lighting from mid-2017, for trials by Oxfam in slums in Sierra Leone, an African refugee camp and possibly in Bangladesh too.

Ioannis Ieropoulos, Professor of Bioenergy and Self-sustainable Systems at UWE

Microbial Fuel Cells (MFCs) go back more than a century, when the first published paper by Michael C. Potter came out in 1911. Since then the technology has had its ups and downs in terms of publications in the scientific literature, commercial and public interest.

We started working with MFCs in January 2002, as part of a project that was exploring the possibility to develop autonomous robots, which could be deployed in remote environments for the purpose of performing a useful task, but would not necessarily be accessible for recharging or replacing any on-board batteries. Microbial Fuel Cells were the obvious candidate for some blue-sky research, which turned out to be a pretty cool choice, given the fact that we were able to feed our microbes inside the MFCs with grass clippings, prawn shells, rotten fruit and dead flies, as a proof-of-concept of what may be possible.

The outcome from this work were two generations of robot, powered by MFCs, namely: EcoBot-I (2003) and EcoBot-II (2005). The next generation, EcoBot-III (2010), demonstrated the feasibility of an on-board circulatory system, for MFC semi-continuous operation, for at least 1 thermodynamic cycle: ingestion (collection of fresh food); digestion (metabolism of the collected food into electricity); and egestion (excretion of waste). This work opened up for us the wastewater treatment research path, since in addition to generating electricity, the MFCs on EcoBot were also treating (i.e. cleaning) the wastewater that was fed as fuel.

With all these years of work with naturally occurring microbes from wastewater or activated sludge, it was inevitable that we would start thinking about human waste directly, and urine – being much easier to collect and work with – became the lab’s favourite fuel, due to the high power output levels we were recording. This work allowed us to apply for funding to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which was the start of the “Urine-tricity” project (generating electricity from urine). Due to this project, we were one of the exhibitors at the Gates Foundation-organised Re-Invent the Toilet Fair in New Delhi in March 2014, which is where we were introduced to Oxfam for the first time. Oxfam presented us with the challenge of lack of lighting in refugee camps, especially in or around communal toilet facilities, and with their help and financial support, we developed the first Pee Power urinal in March 2015. The Pee Power urinal was first tested on UWE’s Frenchay Campus with the student and staff population, and subsequently at the Glastonbury 2015 and 2016 music festival, with some 1000 people/day using the urinal and witnessing the lighting inside the urinal powered by the MFCs in real time.

We are now developing the MFC technology further as part of the Urine-tricity Phase-III project, funded by the Gates Foundation, and are excited by the challenge of providing lighting outside the urinal, as well as inside – a vital capability in refugee camps, and this forms part of our current project.


Elen Newcombe-Ling