Researchers target urine-powered robot

Urine could move from being a waste product to become a useful fuel, if researchers in Bristol get their way.

The team at Bristol Robotics Lab (BRL) is investigating the use of urine within Microbial Fuel Cells (MFCs), which use bacterial cultures to break down organic material to create power. MFCs are a developing technology used to power autonomous robots.

Researchers at BRL, which is a collaboration between the University of Bristol and the University of the West of England (UWE), have spent three and a half years developing a wastewater-powered robot with an artificial stomach, thanks to EU and EPSRC funding. 

Now, BRL’s Dr Ioannis Ieropoulos has been awarded an EPSRC Career Acceleration Fellowship Grant worth £564,561 for a four-year project, which will take this work further. Together with a new team of researchers, he will work on scaling up the MFCs so that they can work together in a ‘stack’ – a series of cells connected both electrically and in terms of the liquid feed-lines under a continuous flow system.

A unique aspect of their research will be to look at the use of urine as a waste material that could be used to power the MFCs.

“We have focused on finding the best waste materials that create the most energy. Over the years we have fed our MFCs with rotten fruit, grass clippings, prawn shells and dead flies in an attempt to investigate different waste materials to use as a ‘food source’ for the MFCs,” explained Dr Ieropoulos.

“Urine is chemically very active, rich in nitrogen and has compounds such as urea, chloride, potassium and bilirubin, which make it very good for the MFCs. We have already done preliminary tests which show it being a waste material that is very effective. Although it is early days for this research, we hope to work towards producing a prototype portable urinal which would use urine to create power from fuel cells - this could be used for example at music festivals and other outdoor events.”

The researchers are already in touch with waterless urinal company Ecoprod Technique, which has seen the potential of the technology. “We have talked to the researchers who say this product is the only type totally suited to complement this research,” said Ecoprod’s Marcus Rose. “We are looking forward to helping with this unique project with the supply of Urimat – The Waterless Urinal, which the research team have chosen. This will be a valuable and interesting collaboration for the company to be involved in.”

A further aspect of the EPSRC-funded project is to develop the cathode side of the MFC so that the whole cell becomes self sustaining. Each MFC has an anode and a cathode, which together complete the system to create power. Commonly bacteria are in the anode side, and chemicals or oxygen are in the cathode side. Replacing chemicals in the cathode with oxygen-producing organisms such as algae would move the MFC towards being a self-sustaining system – the waste from the algae could be used to feed the bacteria in the anode side, i.e. using its own waste to produce energy.

Dr Ieropoulos said: “Advances in this area could provide a significant contribution to the challenges we currently face in terms of energy production and waste clean up. We hope this research will help change the way we think about energy and human waste.”

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