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Urine-power experts reinvent the toilet

Dr Ioannis Ieropoulos

Press release issued: 19 March 2014

A smart toilet, called Urine-tricity, which aims to help bring sanitation to those who need it most, will be showcased at an event in India to improve sanitation and health.

The BioEnergy Team from the Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL), a collaboration between the University of Bristol and the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol), will be an exhibitor at the Reinvent the Toilet Fair: India, an event co-hosted by the Government of India’s Department of Biotechnology and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The fair, which will take place this month, is also supported by the Indian Ministry of Urban Development.

The Reinvent the Toilet Fair: India aims to stimulate discussion and spur partnerships to improve global sanitation and bring affordable sanitation solutions to people who need it most. The fair is also an opportunity to recognise India’s leadership and commitment to improving child health and fostering innovative solutions to persistent development challenges.

Dr Ioannis Ieropoulos’ project is one of around 50 exhibits that will be on display during the two-day fair.  

The BRL research team are showcasing the latest development for a smart toilet. The technology for this work has already sparked global media interest. In July 2013 the researchers announced that it was possible to power a mobile phone using urine. The exhibit is a smart toilet that can power and recharge small electrical devices using urine as the power source and at the same time remove pathogens and clean the urine for sanitation purposes. The team is working towards a prototype that will be installed in Durban, South Africa for a bigger research trial. Eventually it is hoped that a smart toilet capable of generating power and removing pathogens from urine will go into manufacture.

The toilet has been designed so that the urine is ‘collected’ at source, and through feeding the urine to microbial fuel cells (MFCs), sufficient electricity is generated to power up a mobile phone, whilst also potentially removing pathogenic organisms from the fuel.

Dr Ioannis Ieropoulos, describing the work, said: “The exhibit we are taking to India is a urinal structure with its own floor and walls that looks like a cubicle. Urine collected in the urinal is fed into an MFC stack fixed to the back of the cubicle, and a lead connects from the stack to plug in and charge mobile phones. We have tested the technology using mobile phones, but in theory any small electronic device could in principle be charged.

“Microbial fuel cells (MFCs) work by employing live microbes which feed on urine (fuel) for their own growth and maintenance. The MFC is in effect a system which taps a portion of that biochemical energy used for microbial growth, and converts that directly into electricity. As the urine passes through the MFC stack, pathogens may also be removed. This forms part of the current work funded by the Gates Foundation.

“Thanks to the Gates Foundation, we are already working with researchers from Caltech in USA, and participating in the Reinvent the Toilet Fair presents us with a fantastic opportunity to meet up with other researchers and manufacturers from around the world.”

Professor K. Vijay Raghavan, Secretary of the Indian Department of Biotechnology, added: “Of the 1.1 billion people who defecate in the open, almost 60 percent are Indian.  Sanitation solutions using the latest technology need not be complex or driven by expensive gadgetry, but they need to be innovative and address the many aspects of this multifaceted problem.”

Brian Arbogast, Director of the Water, Sanitation & Hygiene team at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said: “Today, because of a lack of toilets and poorly functioning infrastructure, massive amounts of untreated waste winds up in the environment, spreading disease.

“We are privileged to host the Reinvent the Toilet Fair: India with our partners to advance conversations about sanitation – it is a testament to the Indian government’s commitment to improving how we deal with this pressing problem.”

A video of Dr Ioannis Ieropoulos talking about the exhibit that the BRL team is taking to India is available on YouTube.

Further information

About the Bristol Robotics Laboratory

Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL) is the leading and largest academic centre for multi-disciplinary robotics research in the UK. It is a collaborative partnership between the University of Bristol and the University of the West of England (UWE, Bristol), and home to a vibrant community of over 100 academics and industry practitioners, who lead current thinking in service robotics, intelligent autonomous systems and bio-engineering.

An internationally recognised Centre of Excellence in Robotics, BRL’s state-of-the-art laboratory covers an area of over 3,000 square metres, and houses specialist workshops and wet labs, and two flying arenas with multiple 3D motion capture systems.

BRL is also a UK Centre for Doctoral Training in robotics and autonomous systems. It is a unique collaboration that harnesses the collective strengths of its university partners, and brings together the best expertise from industry and the academic community to spearhead Britain’s efforts to be a world leader in modern advanced robotics.

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