Urine: the soldiers’ silent energy source

Sensemaking / Urine: the soldiers’ silent energy source

The US army invests in new technology to turn wastewater into high-grade hydrogen for fuel.

19 Jul 2011

The US army invests in new technology to turn wastewater into high-grade hydrogen for fuel.

In 2009, Professor Geraldine Botte and her team at Ohio University made a splash. They showed that, using an inexpensive nickel based electrode, urine was far better than water at producing hydrogen by electrolysis. The ammonia and urea in the waste water were broken down, and the only by-products were water and nitrogen.

As expected, the process attracted the attention of municipalities and big animal farms. What wasn’t expected was the immediate interest of the US Army.

Naturally, where there are many soldiers there’s a lot of urine and it needs to be treated. But what really attracted the US Army was a way to generate electricity silently: a significant advantage in conflict zones.

“We are currently developing a prototype under a grant from the military for their ‘Silent Camp’ project”, says Botte. “The project aims to reduce camp noise by using fuel cells instead of diesel generators to produce power. Our technology produces high-grade hydrogen, provides clean water and treats camp waste in a single process.”

Restrooms in the desertSince 2009, Botte has been awarded over $5.2 million in government and private grants to commercialise the technology. With associates, she set up the company E3 Clean Technologies, which markets her system under the product name Ammonia GreenBox. This can be integrated with existing wastewater treatment plants.

Urine has several major advantages over water. For one, it takes less than a third as much electricity to free its hydrogen atoms. It’s also a plentiful and free waste product, which means one less demand on valuable fresh water. Integrated into a sewage works or dairy farm, a urine electrolysis system not only produces high-grade hydrogen, which can be used by the plant or sold.

GreenBox can be used wherever there is a need to break down ammonia, so landfill sites and pharmaceuticals are among potential markets. “The fact that the GreenBox is basically a scalable, low temperature, electrical appliance gives us a great deal of flexibility”, E3 Chief Executive Kent Shields explains.

John Fencer

Image credit: DOUGBERRY/istock

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