A miniature fuel cell costing as little as a £1 can generate electricity from urine.
The microbial fuel cell could be a lifeline for people in remote areas – creating a renewable and carbon-neutral way of generating power.
The technology was developed by researchers at the University of Bath, Queen Mary University of London and the Bristol Bioenergy Centre.
The fuel cells use natural biological processes to turn organic matter – like urine – into electricity.
When urine passes through the microbial fuel cell, bacteria inside it generates electricity. This power can be stored or used directly to power electrical devices.
While there have been some similar devices created in the past, this new type of microbial fuel cell is smaller and more powerful.
Crucially, it is also cheaper – meaning it could be useful in developing countries.
That is because it uses a carbon catalyst at the cathode which is manufactured from glucose and ovalbumin – a protein found in egg white – instead of expensive platinum.
Dr Mirella Di Lorenzo, a lecturer at the University of Bath’s chemical engineering department, said: “If we can harness the potential power of this human waste, we could revolutionise how electricity is generated.
“Microbial fuel cells can play an important role in addressing the triple challenge of finding solutions that support secure, affordable and environmentally sensitive energy, known as the ‘energy trilemma’.
“There is no single solution to this ‘energy trilemma’ apart from taking full advantage of available indigenous resources, which include urine.”
A single microbial fuel cell can generate two watts per cubic metre, enough to power a mobile phone. The team is now looking at how to increase the power output with design tweaks.
PhD student Jon Chouler, the lead author of the study, said: “To have created technology that can potentially transform the lives of poor people who don’t have access to or cannot afford electricity is an exciting prospect.”
Details of the research were published in the journal Electrochimica Acta.