Ugandan school successfully lit in urine-powered energy trial

The first field test of a form of urine-powered electricity generation in a remote rural location has taken place in Uganda, with significant success.

The technology, known as Pee Power, produces electricity from urine and other types of wastewater and was developed by the Bristol BioEnergy Centre (BBiC), part of the Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL) at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol).

Ugandan school successfully lit in urine-powered energy trial
Having carried out preliminary field tests at Glastonbury Festival in June, a BBiC research team travelled out to Sesame Girls School in Uganda to install Pee Power with the aim of powering the lighting of an outside toilet block, which was unlit and difficult to access safely for the girls studying in the evening when the temperature is cooler.

So, with the aid of local workers, the team retrofitted the toilet block with Microbial Fuel Cell (MFC) technology and built a small building to house the MFC stacks that generate power from urine.

Now, the power generated by the toilet block is sufficient to light the block and the path leading up to it, with motion sensors fitted in individual toilet cubicles to light up the internal light when needed.

‘Simply wonderful’

The team behind the project, consisting of Dr Tosin Obata, Patrick Brinson and Matt Rudd, were surprised at the ease with which the project came together, notably and ably supported at every step of the way by staff at the Sesame Girls School, led by Headmistress Ruzzaza Peace, and the Diocese of Muhabura, part of the Church of Uganda, with Bishop Cranmer Mugisha organising the building of the MFC house, supplying a 4x4 vehicle and arranging local accommodation.

The team said of the project: “It was fantastic once we had finished the construction to see that the power worked brilliantly. We were staying at a guest house a kilometre away and the block was clearly visible at night time.

“There were some challenges. Simply getting the MFC stacks to such a remote location meant that our technology was transported to the location across dirt tracks on a bus shared with animals.

“We had to drill through reinforced concrete to create the access for the pipework that transported the urine to the newly constructed building that housed the MFC stacks. But despite a few logistical challenges, we were thrilled to see that the technology works.”

Meanwhile, Professor Ioannis Ieropoulos, Director of the BBiC at UWE Bristol, said: “It is simply wonderful that we can now demonstrate Pee Power working in a remote area of a developing country; this test is an important milestone in our work.

“Over the coming years we have plans to take Pee Power to various sites that present us with different challenges in countries such as India, Nepal, Kenya, Sierra Leone and Burkina Faso to bring power and sanitation treatment to places where it is most needed.

“A critical element of the field trials is longevity. By installing Pee Power and having it running in remote areas we can test its long term efficacy and fine tune it to different environments as we learn more about the technology's limits outside the lab.”

Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as the ‘Urine-tricity’ project initially receiving Phase I funding in 2011, Pee Power is now in Phase III of funding and the BBiC team are moving towards developing a commercial Pee Power product and are setting up field tests to trial it in other developing countries.

The project has the potential to make a significant difference for some of the most marginalised rural communities in developing countries where energy infrastructure is limited to non-existent, offering a sustainable source of energy and sanitation if the next trials demonstrate the project can be viably scaled up.

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