A university and Oxfam are showing the world the benefit of pee power, which could be used to light up the world's refugee camps through urine. The university involved previously demonstrated how urine could be used to power a mobile phone.

A toilet, conveniently situated near the student union bar at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) is proving pee can generate electricity.

Urinals gold
The university is using a special urinal to fuel microbial fuel cell (MFC) stacks that generate electricity © iStock/allsee

The prototype urinal is the result of a partnership between researchers at UWE Bristol and Oxfam. It is hoped the pee power technology can be used to light cubicles in refugee camps, which are often dark and dangerous places, particularly for women.

Students and staff will use the urinal to fuel microbial fuel cell (MFC) stacks that generate electricity to power indoor lighting. The research team is led by professor Ioannis Ieropoulos, director of the Bristol BioEnergy Centre, located in the Bristol Robotics Laboratory at UWE Bristol.

Ieropoulos said: “We have already proved that this way of generating electricity works. Work by the Bristol BioEnergy Centre hit the headlines in 2013 when the team demonstrated that electricity generated by microbial fuel cell stacks could power a mobile phone. This exciting project with Oxfam could have a huge impact in refugee camps.”

The microbial fuel cells work by employing live microbes which feed on urine (the 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 - what the researchers are calling “urine-tricity” or pee power.

Ieropoulos said: “This technology is about as green as it gets, as we do not need to utilise fossil fuels and we are effectively using a waste product that will be in plentiful supply.”

The urinal on the university campus resembles a toilet used in refugee camps by Oxfam to make the trial as realistic as possible. The technology that converts the urine into power sits underneath the urinal and can be viewed through a clear screen.

Andy Bastable, head of water and sanitation at Oxfam, said: “Oxfam is an expert at providing sanitation in disaster zones, and it is always a challenge to light inaccessible areas far from a power supply.

“This technology is a huge step forward. Living in a refugee camp is hard enough without the added threat of being assaulted in dark places at night. The potential of this invention is huge.”

Ieropoulos said one microbial fuel cell costs about £1 to make, and that the complete unit that has been mocked up in the university would cost a total of £600 to set up in a refugee camp, which could be used indefinitely and relocated if necessary.