A clean and efficient renewable energy source have been one of the humankind’s most sought-after goals of today. Oil from fossil fuels is slowly losing its charm, especially amongst environmentalists who undeniably are promoting a noble cause. Now, there have been many proposed solutions, but most of these are being dismissed for the time being because of economic viability issues. However, a Mexican scientist’s patent may bring us one step closer to the renewable energy source that we have all been waiting for.
The Eureka Moment
Gabriel Luna-Sandoval is an engineer at the State University of Sonora in Mexico. While working on several other projects, he did not expect that one of his biggest epiphanies would come to him while he was in the men’s restroom.
He was urinating at the time when he realized that the yellow liquid that we consider waste could be a valuable energy source for something more. He cultivated the idea of transforming urine into a viable energy source and nine years later, he has come up with a patented device that could collect liquid waste and use it for various tasks that would usually require some form of conventional fuel.
So far, he has tested his invention with cooking beans and heating water for hot showers. It was reported that 13 to 21 milliliters of urine would be enough for a 15-minute hot shower while cooking beans, which usually takes about an hour, and would require about 70-130 milliliters of the stuff. Compare that to the average daily urine output of 1.4 liters every single day, and it seems that Luna’s invention could actually solve most of a household’s energy problems.
Electrolysis: From Urine to Biogas
Sandoval’s prototype appears to be a transparent box measuring 20 square centimeters, with the main compartment being the part that holds human urine. It has electrodes embedded in it, through which electricity can be sent to separate the hydrogen and oxygen in the liquid.
This breakdown process is what is known as “electrolysis” — the breaking down of a chemical compound into its component substances by the use of electricity. The specific process that is happening in Sandoval’s prototype is also the basis for the production of “biogas,” which is basically the decomposition of organic matter in the absence of oxygen.
The process with which to obtain biogas naturally occurs when anaerobic organisms — that is, creatures that do not need oxygen to survive — perform anaerobic digestion in their closed systems. Most of these are microscopic creatures found thriving in sewage and manure; generally, in places most humans dump waste.
Another form of a biogas-producing natural process that is worth noting is fermentation, which is deliberately promoted in some food processes like wine- or cheese-making. Similarly, while the visible effect to us is simply referred to as “fermenting,” it is actually the microorganisms that do the work we see in fermenting foodstuff — that digestion process is crucial for turning grapes into wine.
Your Urine Can Save the Ozone Layer
Why does this matter? Well, biogas is considered as a renewable energy resource, and Sandoval has found a way to induce the creation of biogas from a readily available (and largely taken for granted) resource that is considered “waste.” Basically, he turned what our bodily processes considered garbage into something that “might” solve most of the world’s energy problems.
Besides being the grail of energy resources, biogas also has a very small carbon footprint. This means that consumption of biogas on a large scale would barely affect the ozone layer and our environment, if at all, as carbon dioxide emissions from biogas processes are reported to be very minimal. This is very favorable, as one of the factors considered when looking for an alternative energy resource, besides economic viability and abundance, is its overall effect on the environment.
From Your Bathroom to the Stars
While Sandoval has been working on his patent for nearly a decade, it is clear that his invention is still in its baby legs. He dreams for his invention to become a household utility, eventually replacing the liquefied petroleum gas tanks that so populate most of Mexico’s homes.
However, for most of the scientific community, the story does not have to end there. His invention caught the attention of institutions like the governmental National Science and Technology Council, the National Researchers System of Mexico, and even the Mexican Space Agency.
According to them, it is possible to see Sandoval’s invention taken to the next level, namely, space technology. The inevitable availability of urine during astronauts’ days out in space is an important factor to consider when putting some more work in the innovation.
This is “space,” after all, and resource levels could be somewhere between slightly in excess, just right or scarce; it is only right to make use of everything that they have — including waste. Suddenly, the image of Mark Watney in The Martian using his colleagues’ manure as fertilizers to grow potato crops on Mars does not seem all too absurd. Sandoval’s urine electrolysis could in large-scale be used to provide the oxygen needed to survive our explorations to planets light-years away.
It’s Still Under Process
However, as of now, it has to be noted that some are still doubtful of the actual performance of Sandoval’s invention. There are some detractors saying that the electricity spent in the electrolysis could have been used to directly heat the water instead of separating hydrogen and oxygen — implying the electrolysis used in the device was nothing but an extra process and there is no actual energy gain.
But it does not hurt to innovate, and little inventions like these are always the precursors of breakthroughs in science. Who knows, in a few years we could be buying larger containers not to store oil but urine instead. Of course, when this technology is perfected.
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