A team of UK scientists recently designed a fuel cell powered by urine. In Grand Junction, Colorado, garbage trucks and street sweepers run on natural gas extracted from human waste. The same is true for buses in Stockholm, Sweden.
Bio-energy from corn crops, wood chips and other renewable plant matter has been around for years. The technology is nothing new. But now bio-energy from human waste is making headway — especially in cities where planners find themselves dealing with aging sewage systems and growing mountains of sludge.
“The reality is that for cities, there are fewer greater challenges than managing the cycle of water and waste,” writes physicist Laurie Winkless, who examined a handful of municipal bio-energy projects for a recent edition of Forbes magazine.
Such technology holds great promise — both for municipal waste management, and potentially, one day, as a reliable alternative for fossil fuels. Consider that Americans produce approximately five billion gallons of human waste each year. It has to go somewhere.
And in Grand Junction, Colorado, some of it is going into their buses. The city has overseen construction of a 5-mile underground pipeline to transport gas from a local sewage plant to a vehicle fueling station. The gas is a byproduct of human waste and previously was flared off. Now it produces 400-500 gallons daily for 37 vehicles.
Cities in Sweden, China and India have similar programs. A bio-energy bus in Bristol, England even has a nickname: the “No. 2 Bus.”
Generating power from urine has also become a very real possibility. UK researchers have created a new “microbial” fuel cell that harnesses energy from the naturally occurring bacterial processes produced by pee. Although it’s not the first such fuel cell, the UK device is 10-times more efficient than previous versions.
Physicist Winkless said that using the technology, the researchers have created a self-lighting toilet. “This may seem like a small step, but this robust, cheap technology could make a real difference to those communities living off-grid, and could have huge implications in the urban landscape,” she wrote.
R.A. Dyer is a policy analyst for TCAP, a coalition of more than 170 cities and other political subdivisions that purchase electricity in the deregulated market for their own governmental use. Because high energy costs can impact municipal budgets and the ability to fund essential services, TCAP, as part of its mission, actively promotes affordable energy policies. High energy prices also place a burden on local businesses and home consumers.