Pee for power

RNW archive

This article is part of the RNW archive. RNW is the former Radio Netherlands Worldwide or Wereldomroep, which was founded as the Dutch international public broadcaster in 1947. In 2011, the Dutch government decided to cut funding and shift RNW from the ministry of Education, Culture and Science to the ministry of Foreign Affairs. More information about RNW Media’s current activities can be found at https://www.rnw.org/about-rnw-media.

Urine as an energy source. You might think it can’t get any weirder than that, but a virtual who’s who of Dutch research institutes and scientific institutions are busy turning ‘yellow power’ into reality. Practical research is well underway, and results so far are very promising.

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Research bureau DHV developed the technical side of the process together with Delft University of Technology, and they’ve recently obtained the patent rights  for China, South Africa, the US and Europe. In Holland alone, energy from urine could power 30.000 homes, and that’s just human urine. If the ‘production’ of livestock is added, it could be five times as many.

Always available
Fundamentally the process is simple: urine contains ammonium. When warmed slightly, this is transformed into ammoniac gas. That gas can be fed into a fuel cell – a kind of generator- and thus used to produce electricity. And that electricity is available all the time, unlike other forms of sustainable energy like wind  and solar power, which depend on weather conditions.

Fertiliser
A very important residual product of the process is phosphate; virtually all fertiliser is phosphate-based, and world stocks of the chemical are running alarmingly low. This alone makes the whole idea worthwhile. 

An acceptable investment.
One of the research findings will be particularly welcome for investors: even though the initial costs are currently high, a urine-to-power system will pay for itself within eight to ten years. For a local water board, that’s an acceptable time scale.