Adam's Weekly Blog
The power of pee
Thank your lucky stars that while we have flat screen televisions, high...
Thank your lucky stars that while we have flat screen televisions, high definition broadcasts and on-demand video services there is no smelly vision. Yet.
Finding the smelliest science was not the aim of my research into the most important new technologies emerging around the world but it was an unhappy by-product of talking to the scientists involved in exploiting the power of pee.
As part of the Horizons series on BBC World News I have been travelling the world looking for revolutionary ideas that might change our world.
That trip has taken me to more than 20 countries from Outer Mongolia, South Korea and Indonesia to my more familiar stamping grounds of Europe and the US.
In that world safari of ideas, there are few which have been as weird or as smelly as the ones that I found in two different university labs on different sides of the world both of which are breaking new ground in the world of extreme recycling.
An often quoted statistic is that there are supposedly more mobile phones in existence than tooth brushes or toilets.
I have not seen the research from the toilet and toothbrush counters but there is no doubt that mobile phones are the ubiquitous tool of the 21st Century.
I have seen them in small African towns where there is barely any electricity to charge them as well as filling the hands of millions of people in bustling cities around the world.
One problem all mobile phone users face is flat batteries. In fact as phones become better at doing more things, the one thing they also do more of is draining the battery.
However an unusual solution to the flat battery is being developed at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory in the UK.
The research is being led by Dr Ioannis Ieropoulous and is based on what he calls Urine-Tricity. This is about harnessing the power of something in plentiful and renewable supply.
It is about the Power of Pee.
It is an example of the latest in extreme recycling and takes distilled urine to power a charging station which then re-charges a mobile phone.
It all starts with the toilets in the laboratory where users have a choice of the traditional urinal or a sample jar. A research student, who is presumably on punishment duties, regularly visits the toilet to collect the samples left by willing donors. It is all then mixed in a huge distillation jar.
It seems foolish now I think about it, but I never imagined the lab would smell. I fondly thought that once it was in the white lab coat environment of glass and polished steel, everything would be sterilised and odourless.
But this lab smelt so bad, I could only stay in it for 10 minutes at a time. While I am told the researchers get used to it, their partners at home are known to complain about the lingering pong.
Dr Ieropoulous and his team use a two compartment fuel cell, with two electrodes and a membrane.
Live micro-organisms in the chamber metabolise the urine that passes through the chamber. The microbes effectively clean the urine and as a by-product of their activity, they also create electricity. So this is a double technology – sanitation and energy in one go.
Their urine technology is at an early stage. At the moment they are just trying to prove the scientific concepts as opposed to creating a product you can buy, so do not expect it at your local Apple or Samsung shop anytime soon.
The charging station is the size of a large suitcase and takes 24 hours to charge a mobile phone. But it is not hard to imagine a time when public toilets in remote areas could be used to generate electricity to charge people phones or create energy for the local village.
The spirit of extreme recycling is also to be found alive and well in Seoul in South Korea, which was my next stop,
South Korea has one of the fastest growing economies in the world. But not only is the country and its residents getting richer, they are creating huge amounts of waste.
A science team at the Women’s University of Seoul is trying to tackle one of the biggest pollution and waste issues by re-inventing plastic wrapping.
In the Food, Science and Technology laboratory, Assistant Professor Sea C. Min and his team are using the protein in fish skin to create an environmentally friendly food wrap.
The final plastic is as odourless as any other wrapping, but it starts with discarded fish skins that stink to high heaven.
Although various other waste products were tried to make the edible film such as apple peelings – the one they finally decided to push ahead with - fish skin - is achieved through a relatively simple process.
It was simple enough in fact for me to have a go at creating it.
First I washed the skins and added them to a saline solution. A gelatine mixture is extracted and is then shaken and freeze dried into white blobs which look like clumps of snow.
Then it is re-hydrated and a bit of glycerol is added. Next, I poured the mixture over a plate and let it dry for 12 hours. And that is all you need to create a film of biodegradable plastic sheet.
It is a clever idea. More than that, it is a commendable idea. But the fish plastic is not as robust as the cling film I am used to. It does however have the amazing advantage of being edible so consumers are able to eat the plastic packaging as they eat the food. It did not look appetising to me, but this is a technology which is still in the laboratory, so more improvements might be on the way.
Many of us have got used to the idea of recycling. It is common for people to recycle their old paper, tins and glass. But we are now taking baby steps into a new world in which science is helping make bolder contributions to a more sustainable environment. Discarded fish skins and urine are clearly just the beginning of a new approach to extreme recycling.