‘Pee-power’ to light camps in disaster zones

Published: 5th March 2015

A toilet, conveniently situated near the Student Union Bar at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol), is proving pee can generate electricity.

The prototype urinal is the result of a partnership between researchers at UWE Bristol and Oxfam. It is hoped the pee-power technology will light cubicles in refugee camps, which are often dark and dangerous places particularly for women.  

Students and staff are being asked to use the urinal to donate pee to fuel microbial fuel cell (MFC) stacks that generate electricity to power indoor lighting.  

The research team is led by Professor Ioannis Ieropoulos, Director of the Bristol BioEnergy Centre located in the Bristol Robotics Laboratory at UWE Bristol.

Professor Ieropoulos says, “We have already proved that this way of generating electricity works. Work by the Bristol BioEnergy Centre hit the headlines in 2013 when the team demonstrated that electricity generated by microbial fuel cell stacks could power a mobile phone. This exciting project with Oxfam could have a huge impact in refugee camps.

"The microbial fuel cells work by employing live microbes which feed on urine (fuel) for their own growth and maintenance. The MFC is, in effect, a system which taps a portion of that biochemical energy used for microbial growth, and converts that directly into electricity - what we are calling urine-tricity or pee power. This technology is about as green as it gets, as we do not need to utilise fossil fuels and we are effectively using a waste product that will be in plentiful supply.”

The urinal on the University campus resembles toilets used in refugee camps by Oxfam to make the trial as realistic as possible. The technology that converts the urine into power sits underneath the urinal and can be viewed through a clear screen.

Andy Bastable, Head of Water and Sanitation at Oxfam, says, “Oxfam is an expert at providing sanitation in disaster zones, and it is always a challenge to light inaccessible areas far from a power supply. This technology is a huge step forward. Living in a refugee camp is hard enough without the added threat of being assaulted in dark places at night. The potential of this invention is huge.”

Both Professor Ieropoulos and Andy Bastable agree it is the cheap, sustainable aspect of this technology, which relies on the abundant, free supply of urine that makes it so practical for aid agencies to use in the field.

Professor Ieropoulos says "One microbial fuel cell costs about £1 to make, and we think that a small unit like the demo we have mocked up for this experiment could cost as little as £600 to set up, which is a significant bonus as this technology is, in theory, everlasting.”

It certainly brings new meaning to the idea of spending a penny in the fight against poverty.

Notes to editors

The launch event is happening at the UWE Bristol Frenchay Campus near the University main reception and the Student Union bar. Media representatives are warmly invited to film and interview the research team in advance of the embargo but we ask that the embargo is honoured to coincide with the launch event on Thursday 5 March.

The UWE team first met up with Oxfam at the Re-Invent the Toilet Fair in Delhi, March 2014, organised by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the two organisations are working together to test if the 'pee-power' toilets will work in refugee camps, usually situated in remote places without amenities.

The Urine-tricity project is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the wider Microbial Fuel Cell work is funded by the EPSRC

The Bristol Bioenergy Centre is based in the Bristol Robotics Laboratory. Bristol Robotics Laboratory is the leading and largest academic centre for multi-disciplinary robotics research in the UK. It is a collaborative partnership between the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) and the University of Bristol, and home to a vibrant community of over 100 academics and industry practitioners, which lead current thinking in service robotics, intelligent autonomous systems and bio-engineering.

Contact information

Contact; UWE Bristol - Jane Kelly, Press Office 0117 9 82208 or Pressoffice@uwe.ac.uk
Oxfam GB - Emma Fabian, PR Press Officer 01865 472193