“God [expletive] I’d [expletive] on a spark plug if I thought it’d do any good,” says Barry Corbin as the waspish General Jack Beringer in the 1980s doomsday Cold War film Wargames. In 2013, maybe Corbin would have offered to whip out a sacrificial cellphone. Instead of creatively electrocuting himself for world peace, he could have juiced up his mobile’s battery with cutting-edge waste conversion tech.
Okay, so you don’t actually pee on the phone, because that’s gross, but scientists with the U.K.-based Bristol Robotics Laboratory claim they’ve indeed managed to harness the power of urine to produce sufficient energy to charge a garden variety cellphone.
“By harnessing this power as urine passes through a cascade of microbial fuel cells (MFCs), we have managed to charge a Samsung mobile phone,” lab scientist Dr. Ioannia Ieropoulos told the BBC. Those microorganisms produce electricity by metabolizing organic matter (the urine), so, you know, there’s even a side benefit: feeding the hungry!
Forget cellphones for a moment, or trying to work out how exactly you’d go about squaring that particular circle in public — think about places we pee with impunity, namely public bathrooms, where these researchers suggest the technology could be harnessed to power lights, showers and plug-in appliances. And since everyone has to pee eventually, you’re talking the kind of renewable energy source guarantee solar and wind power can’t provide.
“One product that we can be sure of an unending supply is our own urine,” says Ieropoulos.
At this point, we’re talking relatively small amounts of power — enough to text, browse the web and make short phone calls — but the scientists claim that’s just the beginning. They plan to develop MFCs capable of fully charging a phone battery.
Beyond that? One step closer to Doc Emmet Brown’s waste-powered DeLorean? Maybe down the road (why not?). For now, think smart toilets, a project the team’s currently working to secure funding for.
“Watch this space,” says Ieropoulos.