PEE POWER® to light up more sites after Africa school trial success

Issue date: 23 April 2018

Technology that converts urine into electricity will be introduced to further locations in the Developing World this year following a successful trial in Uganda.

The PEE POWER® system developed at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) has for the past eight months been in operation at a girls' boarding school without access to mains electricity.

Testing has revealed the technology - installed to provide lighting outside a previously unlit toilet block and inside four cubicles - is reliable and can be replicated at other off-grid sites across Africa and beyond.

Researchers collecting data and evaluating the social impact of the project at Seseme Girls' School in Kisoro have received positive feedback from students and staff.

Benefits for students since installation in July 2017 include:

- Pupils feeling safer when accessing the toilet block after dark

- Girls being able to clearly spot potentially dangerous creatures (snakes and spiders) in and around the cubicles

- A decrease in male intruders reported in the area

Questionnaire responses revealed the vast majority of pupils found the PEE POWER® toilets easy to use, agreed the technology had made the toilets safer to access and liked the idea that their urine was being used to generate electricity.

The school's headmistress Peace Ruzaza said the PEE POWER® project had been the subject of great interest among students and the wider community, even contributing to an increase in pupil admissions.

Professor Ioannis Ieropoulos, the scientist who developed the technology, has recently returned from a visit to the school to test the system's reliability.

He said: “The system was up and running with the lights coming on every evening. We wanted to check for environmental factors – had the high humidity caused corrosion or was there any evidence of clogging up or drying out from a period of inactivity when the school closed over the winter?

“We're eight months down the line and the technology has been proven to work, even with multiple types of impact. The technology has made accessing the toilets more hygienic, more secure, and has resulted in predator avoidance. The girls have even been seen congregating around the lighting with books to study after dark.”

Dr Gill Davies, the project manager working on the initiative, said: “It was great to see the system functioning and providing lighting for the toilet block. Talking with some of the students, they described their increased feeling of safety at night as well as scientific interest in how the technology works.”

The PEE POWER® technology uses organic material found in urine as a fuel to generate power. The waste water is channelled through a series of microbial fuel cells to create enough electricity to power lighting outside the toilet block and, via motion sensors, inside its cubicles. The toilet block was retrofitted with microbial fuel cell (MFC) technology to enable access to the urine waste.

Further trials are now being considered at sites with different geographies, climates and populations to rigorously test the robustness and impact, as well as the limitations of the technology.

A shortlist of locations across sub-Saharan Africa, India and Nepal, has been drawn up for the next trial but the most likely location is Nairobi, Kenya, where the technology is expected to be introduced in May. Locations being considered include other boarding schools, refugee camps, slums and hospitals. There are also ongoing discussions around potential sites in India, Indonesia, Sierra Leone and South Africa.

Professor Ieropoulos said the presence of the technology at the school had been the source of excitement and pride in the Ugandan community.

He said: “The news of the PEE POWER® lighting and the use of renewable energy have been causing a buzz in the local media, generating much interest in the school. They've had their biggest ever Form One intake this year as a result. Parents feel their children will be safer with the lighting in place and like the idea of them learning about this emerging technology.

“We're now looking at other sites – including schools which are showing an interest in having our technology. We're considering boarding schools because we want to cover that particular need where toilets are located some distance from the dorms.”

The PEE POWER® MFC technology and field trials are being developed through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) funded Urine-tricity project, undertaken by the Bristol BioEnergy Centre (BBiC) at Bristol Robotics Laboratory, based at UWE Bristol.

How PEE POWER® works

PEE POWER® is generated when microbial fuel cells (MFCs) work by employing live microbes which feed on urine (the fuel) for their own growth and maintenance.

The MFC taps a portion of the biochemical energy used for microbial growth, and converts that directly into electricity or PEE POWER®.

This green technology also cleans the urine so that the by product can be used as a crop fertiliser.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation works with partner organizations worldwide to tackle critical global problems. The Urine-tricity project at UWE Bristol is funded under the Foundation's Water, Sanitation & Hygiene program, which focuses on developing innovative approaches and technologies that can lead to radical and sustainable improvements in sanitation in the developing world.

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