Advances in converting urine into clean energy
• Lumos Laboratories creates an improved model of urine-diverting toilet for separating and harvesting waste from point of use
• Partners Israeli Embassy, Office of the Vice President to massively produce UDTs, improve efficiency of invention reactor
• As human urine could replace chemical fertilisers that have a devastating impact on climate change but would require new toilets
Scientists have advanced in the use of human urine to generate electricity and produce chemical fertiliser.
A Nigerian scientist and President/Director of Research at Lumos Laboratories Nigeria Limited, Ejikeme Patrick Nwosu, who had fabricated equipment that converts urine into flammable gases, biomethane and hydrogen-rich gases, with 100 per cent indigenous technological inputs, told The Guardian on Tuesday that the company had updated its urine-energy technology.
Nwosu, a graduate of Pure and Industrial Chemistry from Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka (NAU), Anambra State with Masters of Science degree in Organic Chemistry from the University of Ibadan (UI), Oyo State, said: “We have made some tremendous progress in perfecting the use of gases produced from urine to generate electricity by blending our hydrogen-ammonia rich gases with either biomethane or liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) in controlled proportion. This becomes pertinent because most gas electricity generators on the shelves are not designed to run only on hydrogen.”
He said HyDeploy Consortium in the United Kingdom (U.K.) on a budget averaging £7million is carrying out a replica of such a project. Nwosu said while HyDeploy targets the use of hydrogen-blended gases for heating purposes, Lumos Laboratories Nigeria Limited is more interested in using hydrogen-ammonia blended gas for the generation of electricity.
Nwosu’s novel innovation was awarded an Invention Patent Right of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in 2014 while the American Chemical Society published the abstract in 2005.
Nwosu was last year awarded two Invention patent rights by the Federal Republic of Nigeria for his two latest innovations. This has brought the number of patents on his name to five.
The first patent is on the development of Ezeugo Flask while the other is on the creation of Fire Retardant Paint using byproducts from Lumos Laboratories’ urine-to-energy processing.
The chemist further explained: “Our results have been impressive and prove to be a clever way out of the use of carbon-rich gases as a primary energy resource, gradually and consistently, we can increase the amount of hydrogen in the gases we use and over the time phase out the use of polluting carbon-rich gases.
“One of the project sites we are working on currently is Queen Elizabeth School, Ilorin, Kwara State, Nigeria. The target is to use urine from the boarding students to generate clean electricity for use in the hostel. We have done the initial test running of the plant with success. We are on enlightenment and technical training of some students, teachers and staff to man the plant before full commissioning and handover to ensure proper maintenance and sustainability.
“We don’t want a condition where a project of this nature is delivered to a host community that does not have the required capacity and technical knowledge to run and maintain the plant. This has been one of the reasons most projects delivered in Nigeria failed. Because of the passion we have for seeing that our ideas and brainchild are being replicated and in use in various parts of the world, we will only be glad to see all the plants we construct stand the test of time. This project was awarded by the National Center for Hydropower Research and Development (Energy Commission of Nigeria).”
Nwosu said one of the major components needed for this project is a urine-diverting toilet (UDT), which is used for separating and harvesting urine from point of use. He said, unfortunately, no company manufactures that in the country at the moment despite the abundance of raw materials. “It has not been rosy because the cost of bringing those items into the country is high, whereas we can actually produce them locally,” he said.
Nwosu, however, said he had been able to create an improved model of the UDT with the help of I-FAIR programme. I-FAIR is the Innovation Fellowship for Aspiring Inventors and Researchers, an initiative for raising a generation of innovators, inventors and researchers in Nigeria, an initiative of the Israeli Embassy in Nigeria and the Office of the Vice President of Nigeria. “Soon, we hope to have urine-diverting toilets massively produced in Nigeria,” he said.
The chemist said his team of researchers at Lumos Laboratories was working towards improving the efficiency of their Urine-Energy reactor (Patrium Flask Reactor) and the urine-energy process as well as delving into converting urine into more useful products.
Nwosu said the laboratory was also working on the generation of clean gases from biological means via bioremediation, using algae and other microorganisms. “Our beam had been on urine over the years because it is the most abundant renewable waste on earth with huge potential,” he said.
Meanwhile, according to a new study, reported in Daily Mail UK, human urine could be the answer to replacing chemical fertiliser in agriculture and private gardens, as it is safer for the environment.
An engineer, Fabien Esculier, who runs the OCAPI research programme in France, said: “Plants need nutrients, including nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, and these are ingested through the food we eat, excreting them, mostly through urine.”
Esculier explained: “This presents an opportunity, but gathering enough urine to meet the demand of industrial agriculture would require changes to facilities and processes – including new urine funnelling toilets.”
Chemical fertilisers use synthetic nitrogen, in use for around a century, and have helped drive up yields and boost agricultural production to feed the population.
When used in large quantities, they make their way into river systems and other waterways, causing choking blooms of algae that can kill fish and other aquatic life.
To replace chemical fertilisers, the researchers said one would need many times the weight of treated urine, but as synthetic nitrogen is a significant source of greenhouse gases, creating systems to gather urine would be a ‘long-term resilient model’ for agriculture.
According to the United Nations (UN), emissions from agricultural ammonia can combine with vehicle fumes to create dangerous air pollution, and they also create emissions of the potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide, contributing to climate change.
Julia Cavicchi, of the US Rich Earth Institute, said: “Modern-day sanitation practices represent one of the primary sources of nutrient pollution.” She said that urine is responsible for around 80 per cent of the nitrogen found in wastewater and more than half of the phosphorus.
To replace chemical fertiliser, one would need many times the weight in treated urine, Cavicchi explained, making it so far unworkable as a solution.
However, the benefits of switching to urine may outweigh the downsides such as difficulties gathering urine, due to rising climate change, according to the expert.
“Since the production of synthetic nitrogen is a significant source of greenhouse gases, and phosphorus is a limited and non-renewable resource, urine-diverting systems offer a long-term resilient model for human waste management and agricultural production,” she said.
One 2020 study by UN researchers found that global wastewater has the theoretical potential to offset 13 per cent of the world’s demand for nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in agriculture, but diverting urine is easier said than done.
In the past, urban excrement was transported to fields to be used as fertiliser along with animal manure, before chemical alternatives began to displace them.
“But now if you want to collect urine at source, you need to rethink toilets and the sewage system itself,” according to experts.
A pilot project to do just that began in Sweden in the early 1990s in a selection of eco-villages and now there are projects in Switzerland, Germany, the US, South Africa, Ethiopia, India, Mexico and France.
“It takes a long time to introduce ecological innovations and especially an innovation such as urine separation which is very radical,” said Tove Larsen, a researcher at Switzerland’s Eawag aquatic research institute.
She said the early urine-diverting toilets were considered unsightly and impractical or raised concerns about unpleasant odours.
A new model toilet – developed by the Swiss company Laufen and Eawag – should solve these difficulties, with a design that funnels urine into a separate container.
Once the urine is collected it needs to be processed, as, while urine is not normally a major carrier of disease, the World Health Organization recommends leaving it for a period of time, although it is also possible to pasteurise it.
Then there are various techniques for concentrating or even dehydrating the liquid, reducing its volume and the cost of transporting it to the fields.
Another challenge is overcoming public squeamishness when it comes to bathroom activities and the prospect of storing up urine.
Prices of synthetic fertilisers are currently soaring because of shortages caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has also spurred countries to consider shoring up their food security, which the researchers say could be an opportunity to ‘make the subject more visible and promote the switch to natural urine-based fertilizers.