Professors Ioannis (Yannis) Ieropoulos and John Greenman of the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) recently published the findings of their groundbreaking research in the leading scientific journal PLOS ONE.
What they claim to have achieved is a technology that kills pathogens, like the dreaded “Salmonella,” harmful to humans, by employing an existing technology that generates electricity from organic waste, like urine – referred to as ‘Urine-tricity++’ (electricity from urine).
The following is the project goal of the Microbial Fuel Cells (MFC) project as explained in the article “Urine-tricity++: Electricity from Urine” (www.brl.ac.uk):
“The proposed work is all about electricity generation, whilst cleaning the urine ‘fuel’ and producing clean water in addition to fertilizer, and is focusing on small-scale MFC units, which have been shown to be more efficient and energy-dense. The continuous flow nature of the MFC technology facilitates continuous growth of the constituent biofilm organisms, which clean the input and can be subsequently used as fertilizer. In essence, the more powerful the MFC is, the greater are the rates of urine utilization.”
If the technology in question is a feasible option and can be put to practical use it could change the sanitation scenario in developing countries especially in areas with poor or no sanitation policies and infrastructure.
What is more, it can be deployed at homes to treat waste before it is released into the public sewerage network thereby reducing the burden on sewage treatment companies.
Director of the Bristol BioEnergy Centre, based at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory at UWE Bristol, Professor Ioannis Ieropoulos, who also happens to be leading the research, said:
“Water companies are under pressure to improve treatment and produce cleaner and cleaner water at the end of the process. This means costs are rising, energy consumption levels are high and chemicals that are not good for the environment are being used.”
He said it was important to ascertain that the technology could actually engage and destroy pathogens before it could be recommended for use in the Developing World.
The Professor also said that globally, it was the first such report – that pathogens could be destroyed using this method.
“We were really excited with the results…. it shows we have a stable biological system in which we can treat waste, generate electricity and stop harmful organisms making it through to the sewerage network.”
It’s not that the research involves a new technology altogether; it’s just a brilliant improvisation on the emerging MFC technology created by Dr. Ieropoulos and his team that can clean organic waste, including urine, to a level where it could be safely released into the environment, generating energy in the process.
The technology, however, is still in its nascent stage – in earlier trials, just about enough electricity was generated to charge a mobile or, power light bulbs.
A ‘Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’ funded program, the exceptional system being developed uses a method where microbes inside the fuel cells consume and break down the organic content of the urine generating power as a more-than-useful by-product.
“The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are funding research on the topic: ‘Create the Next Generation of Sanitation Technologies’. As part of the Grand Challenges Exploration Scheme (Round 7) the Intelligent Bio Energy Group were awarded a Phase-I grant for the project ‘Urine-tricity: electricity from urine’,” (www.brl.ac.uk)
To check the effectiveness of the technology in destroying pathogens, Salmonella enteritidis was released into the urine flowing through the system and, indeed, a significant drop in pathogen numbers was observed at the end of the process – below the minimum threshold set by the sanitation sector.
“The wonderful outcome in this study was that tests showed a reduction in the number of pathogens beyond the minimum expectations in the sanitation world,” the emeritus Professor of Microbiology and co-researcher, John Greenman, said.
“We have reduced the number of pathogenic organisms significantly but we haven’t shown we can bring them down to zero — we will continue the work to test if we can completely eliminate them,” he added.
Research and experiments are continuing to establish the effectiveness of the MFC system in successfully eliminating other pathogens and viruses.