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New technology makes electricity from urine

The scientists have come up with a ‘doubly-good’ invention: the means to generate electricity through the process of cleaning organic waste (like urine) and at the same time destroying bacteria that are potentially harmful to humans. The process involves wastewater flowing through a series of bio-cells. The cells contain so-termed electroactive microbes. The microbes function to attack and destroy pathogens, such as Salmonella bacteria.

Some bacteria have evolved strategies to transfer electrons far beyond the cell surface. This electron transfer property enables the use of these bacteria in bioelectrochemical systems, such as microbial fuel cells. A new application is with the treatment of wastewater.

The tests showed electroactive bacteria generate electricity to make a contribution to renewables and they can also purify water up to ten times faster than conventional methods. Furthermore, with the wastewater trial a significant reduction in pathogens was noted. For this the researchers challenged samples of urine with a specific organism called Salmonella enteritidis. The trials showed that the population of the pathogen was reduced by over two-thirds.

The new process has been created by Professor Ioannis Ieropoulos. In a statement the scientist explains: “We were really excited with the results — it shows we have a stable biological system in which we can treat waste, generate electricity and stop harmful organisms making it through to the sewerage network.”

It is hoped that the new technology will be used in the Developing World, especially in areas lacking sanitation. Here the process could be fitted in homes in to help clean waste before it flows into the municipal sewerage network. This would lower the burden on water companies to treat effluent.

The research is published in the journal PLOS One under the title “Urine disinfection and in situ pathogen killing using a Microbial Fuel Cell cascade system.”

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Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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