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 Harnessing Pee Power: From Waste to Electricity

Gerardine G. Botte, PhD. Ohio University


Hydrogen is a non-polluting source of fuel cell power.  The production of fuel cells, however, is limited by the high cost and lack of sustainable source of hydrogen, generally done by splitting water.  Gerardine G. Botte, Ph.D.  of Ohio University Department of Chemical and Bio-molecular Engineering has found a way to harness the power of ammonia into hydrogen.  Through electrolysis of ammonia contained in waste water, Dr. Botte and her students are solving the problems that have hindered hydrogen production: storage, cost and transportation. Yes, she has found a way to convert pee into hydrogen fuel.

Dr. Botte solved these concerns by:

  • Developing a way to electrolyze ammonia (NH3) into nitrogen, a non-polluting element found abundantly on earth and hydrogen for fuel power.  She has been able to do this at low temperatures (25 degrees C) thereby reducing the cost of generating power to create power.  She and her students have created prototypes using solar energy to power the electrolytic process.
  • Utilizing urea (contained in urine) in waste water as a plentiful and sustainable source of hydrogen. Ammonia has four hydrogen atoms compared to water which has two.  Dr. Botte suggests that a good testing ground would be places where large numbers of people naturally congregate such as airports and stadiums as well as feed lots where animal waste can be utilized.
  • Creating a process of on demand production thus eliminating the need for storage.   Waste water is already contained in waste management systems and distribution can follow currently available infrastructures such as ammonia pipelines already in existence around the country

Urea in urine hydrolyzes into ammonia which in turn breaks down into ammonium sulfate and nitrate particulates. Ammonia is a pollutant because  it impairs air quality, contributes to the eutrophication (excessive supply of organic substances and nutrients) of surface water and ground contamination with nitrates. Nitrate particulates have been thought to contribute to poor visibility and haze and to such health problems like bronchitis and asthma.  Electrolyzing urine reduces the by- products to hydrogen and nitrogen, non-polluting substances thus helping clean the atmosphere.

Urea contains four hydrogen atoms which are less tightly bound than the two hydrogen atoms in water, previously the main source of hydrogen fuel cells. Dr. Botte uses a nickel plated electrode which breaks up the molecule at a voltage of 0.37V, much less than the 1.23V needed to split water.  The Ohio University electrolytic process is also contaminant free, thus solving a common problem for fuel cells.

The estimated cost to produce 1 kg of hydrogen from electrolysis is $ 2.00 compared to $8.00/ kg hydrogen from other methods.  Dr. Botte estimates that hydrogen from the waste of one cow can power the water heating needs of 19 homes.  One kilogram of hydrogen has energy equivalent to 1 gallon of gasoline.  It is estimated that hydrogen powered cars can run cleanly up to 95 miles/kg.

One place where it can be used is in mobile homes or homes that do not have ready access to a power grid.  Among obstacles to solve is production and the cost of devices to separate toilet waste water from water in kitchens and non-waste sources.

Commercial applications of this technology are being considered.  In 2007, American Hydrogen Company, a subsidiary of American Security Resources Corp., bought the rights to this technology and announced plans to commercialize the application to produce energy for homes and offices.  The Ohio Department of Development has invested 1M dollars to the research of this technology.



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