Sustainable energy: The future of pee-power to be investigated

It’s possible to convert urine into electricity, but so far only to an extent where a mobile phone can be charged. Now researchers at the IT University of Copenhagen have built a robot that can help us find out whether organic waste is usable as a sustainable energy source.

ResearchKasper StøyBusiness ITrobots

In 2013, a video in which researchers from the Bristol Robotics Laboratory explained how they could use urine to charge a mobile phone got a lot of media attention.

Unfortunately, the amount of electricity that can be generated from urine is so small that we can’t expect to see our organic waste being transformed into an energy source. At least not yet. That’s why the researchers behind the EU-funded project, Evobliss, want to investigate whether a robot can make the process fit for generating electricity on a larger scale.

A simple robot
The Evobliss project started in 2014. In early 2015 the first prototypes of the robot, Evobot, was ready for use. The principal investigator of the project, Associate Professor Kasper Stoey is responsible for the development of the robot, and he says that Evobot can be seen as a kind of ubiquitous laboratory assistant that can work 24-7:

- In the process we use microbial fuel cells. They are essentially bioelectrochemical energy converters, which consist of two chambers that are seperated by a membrane. In one of the chambers you have the urine, the second one is for water. During the process, more water needs to be injected due to evaporation. Our robot registers when, and will add the required amount of  water without human influence. Furthermore, the robot measures when the electrical output from the fuel cells decreases and will automatically add more urine if needed, he explains.

Evobot resembles a converted 3D printer, and Kasper Støy explains that it is a relatively modest robot in terms of artificial intelligence. In turn, it’s cheap and easy to operate for laboratory staff without specific IT skills.

- What makes our robot unique is that it measures what happens and then reacts to it. This makes it possible to automate processes where everything is not known in advance such as the time it takes for microbes to breakdown the urine, he says.

Evobot welcomed
At the Bristol BioEnergy Centre, Bristol Robotics Laboratory (University of the West of England), one of the project's five partners, the Evobot prototype has been in use since May 2015. Professor Ioannis Ieropoulos explains that the discovery of power production by utilising organic material in microbial fuel cells goes back to 1911. However, the big breakthrough in the field has not yet materialized. The big question is now whether Evobot can provide us with  knowledge that can lead to a future where urine and other organic materials can be used as a viable sustainable energy source. 

Ioannis Ieropoulos describes the first experiments with the robot as "extremely exciting" because Evobot not only optimizes energy production. It also gives researchers access to large amounts of data which have previously been unavailable:

- This is the first time we have a real time mechanism in place which can monitor the voltage outcome, the microbial fuel cells and respond to an underperforming fuel cell … or not respond because the output level is above the threshold, says professor Ioannis Ieropoulos. - This exercise has allowed us to capture data which we have never seen before. We have already seen some interesting data, which we are analyzing at the moment. Hence the role of the robot is key in helping us to optimize microbial fuel cells for maximum output and also to help us understand what’s on going on inside.

Future scenarios
Professor Ioannis Ieropoulos  says that if it turns out that urine actually can be used as an energy source on a large scale, for instance in a factory, he is convinced that the robots will be an essential part of the production line. However, the researchers at the Bristol BioEnergy Centre experiment with both large and small-scale uses.

- On a large scale, I could imagine autonomous households in small communities or even small cities with these systems built into the infrastructure so they take household waste and use it to produce enough electricity to power the lights for the entire house. On the other end of the scale spectrum we have wearables. We are building small miniature microbial fuel cells which can be worn as a part of a fabric or a textile, and we take the urine that the person who wears it produces and use it to power the person’s smart devices.

However, during the Evobliss project, the researchers will focus on the data that Evobot generates in order to develop the microbial fuel cells.  Professor Ioannis Ieropoulos describes Evobliss as a pioneering project that can help us accelerate the development for charging our phones with our urine in the near future. Both Ioannis Ieropoulos and Kasper Stoey expect that their experiments can help us understand better the value of our urine – as well as of other organic waste – for sustainable energy production.

- The major discoveries in science have often been based on technological advances. For example the telescope made it possible to look further and study the stars, says Kasper Stoey. - And although it is too early to say anything about what we can use this new knowledge about the microbial fuel cell for, it is great our robots can help develop a novel alternative energy source.

Further information

Jari Kickbusch, phone 7218 5304, email jark@itu.dk