Heriot-Watt University: Carbamide Power System Fuel Cell Turns Urine
into Electricity & Water
August 30, 2010
A research team at Heriot-Watt University is investigating whether urine
could be used to create energy via new, low-cost fuel cells.
Dr Shanwen Tao and his
research partner Dr Rong Lan have been awarded a £130,000 grant to
develop their prototype Carbamide Power System
Dr Shanwen Tao and his research partner Dr Rong Lan have developed a
prototype, the Carbamide Power System, and have now been awarded a
£130,000 EPSRC grant to develop it.
Fuel cells are electrochemical devices which convert chemical energy
into electricity with heat generated as a by-product, via an
electrochemical process that does not require combustion. Traditional
fuel cells usually involve hydrogen or methanol at one side and oxygen
or air at the other, separated by a specialized ionic-conducting
The biggest obstacles to commercializing these proton exchange membrane
fuel cells are cost, with the membrane and conventional, platinum-based
catalysts, and challenges involving the transportation and storage of
the highly flammable hydrogen or the toxic methanol.
The Carbamide Power System involves
far cheaper membrane and catalysts, and can be run on urea (also known
as carbamide), a mass manufactured industrial fertilizer and a major
component of human and animal urine. Carbamide Power Systems would thus
offer a non-toxic, low cost, easily transportable viable alternative to
high pressure, highly flammable hydrogen gas or the toxic methanol
currently used in fuel cells. As urea solution is increasingly being
used in heavy goods vehicles to reduce nitrous oxide emissions, a global
fuelling infrastructure already exists.
Tao believes that long term potential applications of the Carbamide
Power System include in submarines, among the military, power generation
in an isolated or remote areas such as deserts or on islands. As the
process breaks the Urea or urine into water, nitrogen and carbon
dioxide, it could also be used to reprocess waste water, with
electricity as a by product.
Dr Tao said, "Growing up in rural eastern China I was aware of the use
of urea as an agricultural fertilizer. When I became a chemist and was
looking at fuel cell development I thought of using it in the process.
"We are only at prototype stage at present, but if this renewable
material can be used as a commercially viable and environmentally
friendly energy source then we will be absolutely delighted, and many
people around the world will benefit."