The power of pee: Kids in England learn how urine can create electricity

: What if you could make electricity from pee?

It turns out you can, and 60 elementary school students in England learned how to do it in one of the most unusual science projects ever.

The experiment started last year, when devices called microbial fuel cells (MFCs) created at the University of West England proved that cheap, reliable and usable electricity could be made from urine, or pee, with the help of little organisms. The MFCs made clean water and fertilizer, too.

Oxfam, a charity that serves people in 96 countries, plans to install MFCs in places where electricity isn’t available and clean water is scarce.

And as part of a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — Bill Gates created Microsoft, the computer-industry giant — the university’s Bio­Energy Center began a project to take its MFC findings to elementary school students near Bristol, England, where BioEnergy is located.

The university supplied lab coats, safety glasses and gloves to students at Bailey’s Court Primary School, said Jessica Hill, 11. “We were like real scientists. We were learning something we’ve never learned before, and it was really engaging.”

“But we used artificial wee,” said Carter Bourton Green, 10, explaining that teachers didn’t want kids handling urine at school. The fake mix was muddy water from the schoolyard, bits of rotting things, sugar, even diet soft drinks.

Although the MFC process has been known since 1911, Jonathan Winfield of BioEnergy said the MFC technology is revolutionary. It can turn a portable outdoor bathroom, or latrine, into a reliable source of electricity to power a fan, recharge batteries or run lights.

“That’s vital at refugee camps,” he said, referring to areas where there are few protections for women and girls at night when they go to the latrines.

“We made MFCs by ourselves,” said Megan Walsh, 12, explaining how the 10 teams of six kids at her school set up and ran their MFCs. Her team, named the Little Einsteins, first assembled a kit designed especially for them by the university. It’s similar to the MFCs used at refugee camps.

The device looks something like a sandwich. The kids put a postcard-size wedge of bacteria between two clear plastic squares, which are then tightened.

Little tubes run in and out of the MFC. Wastewater enters the device through one tube; the bacteria in the center digest, or eat, matter in the water; and the remaining water drains out.

The bacteria break down matter from the wastewater into protons and electrons. Protons are positively charged, and electrons are negatively charged; when the two are combined, electricity is generated. Two little wires on either side of the square “capture” that electricity.

“It smelled really disgusting,” confessed Bethan Morris, 11. “But it was most interesting, more scientific work, more grown up. . . . I loved it.”

Jessica said she had to explain a lot of the project to her family, including how MFCs might change the world. Some experts say about 28 percent of clean water is consumed by commercial toilets. MFCs could be used to make electricity cheaply, and they could reduce the energy needed to treat drinking water and wastewater, she said. “It could help global warming.”

For Will Marlow, 11, the best part of the project was when all the teams brought their MFCs to an assembly, where the wires of all the students’ devices were strung together. The kids did a countdown to zero, and a switch was thrown to see whether they had made enough electricity to power a lightbulb.

“We did,” Will said. “It was nice to know new stuff, and see that it works.”

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