BioEnergy Central: Pee Power Lights Up Rural Uganda as Microbial Fuel Cells Generate Electricity from Wastewater

Posted on October 12, 2017

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The remote rural village of Kisoro in Uganda is the first community to be powered using wastewater electricity generation developed at the Bristol BioEnergy Centre.

Sesame Girls School’s toilet block is now powered by electricity generated from wastewater.

Field trials to test so-called ‘Pee Power’ have returned a resounding success in the rural village of Kisoro, Uganda. The Bristol BioEnergy Centre (BBiC) provided the remote community with a microbial fuel cell (MFC) that generates electricity using urine and other types of wastewater as fuel.

Research teams from the BBiC, based at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory at the University of the West of England, travelled to the Sesame Girls School in Kisoro to install their Pee Power generator and a lighting system for a toilet block. As the girls study late in the evening when it is cooler, the block was unlit and difficult to get to safely in the dark.

The team adapted and retrofitted the toilet block with its fuel cell technology to use the urine waste with the help of local workers. Housing was also built for the MFC stacks that generate electricity for the entire block and the path leading up to it. Each cubicle was then fitted with a motion sensor to switch on only when needed.

Microbial Fuel Cell ‘Pee Power’ was trialled at the Glastonbury Festival.

Field Trials

The team – Dr Tosin Obata, Patrick Brinson and Matt Rudd – said that vital field work undertaken at the annual Glastonbury Festival was invaluable for the project. Local support for the project, including help in building the MFC house and accommodation, came from the Sesame Girls School’s headmistress Ruzzaza Peace and Bishop Cranmer Mugisha of the Church of Uganda.

“It was fantastic once we had finished the construction to see that the power worked brilliantly,” the BBiC team said. “We were staying at a guest house a kilometre away and the block was clearly visible at night time. There were some challenges. Simply getting the MFC stacks to such a remote location meant that our technology was transported to the location across dirt tracks on a bus shared with animals.”

Professor Ioannis Ieropoulos, director of the BBiC at UWE Bristol, added, “It is simply wonderful that we can now demonstrate Pee Power working in a remote area of a developing country; this test is an important milestone in our work. Over the coming years we have plans to take Pee Power to various sites that present us with different challenges in countries such as India, Nepal, Kenya, Sierra Leone and Burkina Faso to bring power and sanitation treatment to places where it is most needed.

“A critical element of the field trials is longevity. By installing Pee Power and having it running in remote areas we can test its long term efficacy and fine tune it to different environments as we learn more about the technology’s limits outside the lab.”

Fuelling Ambitions

Bristol’s BioEnergy Centre aims to bring microbial fuel cell, bioenergy and self sustaining systems to real world situations where waste can play a part in electricity generation. The BBiC has a number of projects aimed at power robots and other devices using waste products. By generating electricity from natural biomass, robots can have a degree of autonomy in environments that are inaccessible or even deadly to human beings.

The team has built robots powered by the MFC, sugar, and even flies, as well as a robot that decomposes. MFC technology can be stacked up to create power packs and can even generate power underwater. Now the team has also demonstrated that MFCs fed with urine can charge a commercially available mobile phone.

Pee Power is generated when microbial fuel cells (MFCs) work by employing live microbes which feed on urine (the fuel) for their own growth and maintenance. The MFC taps a portion of the biochemical energy used for microbial growth, and converts that directly into electricity or Pee Power. This green technology also cleans the urine so that the by product can be used as a crop fertiliser.

BBiC is part of the Bristol Robotics Laboratory – a partnership between the University of the West of England and the University of Bristol – which plays host to Open Bionics, who develop low-cost 3D printed, customised bionic limbs, which won a Dyson award for innovation.

Pee Power is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as the ‘Urine-tricity’ project, which received Phase I funding in 2011. Now in Phase III, the Urine-tricity team at BBiC is moving towards developing a commercial Pee Power product and setting up field trials for testing it in developing country locations.

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