Innovation often starts with an astute observation. For the South Korean creator of a new digital currency, the idea came from a simple biological fact: everyone poops.
“If you’re alive, you poop,” said Cho Jae-weon, an urban and environmental engineering professor at the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST) of South Korea.
By developing a system that generates energy from human feces, the professor devised a way for people to turn literal shit into digital gold—something he called Feces Standard Money. He named a unit of the money Ggool, which means honey in Korean.
“Being alive means you’re precious,” Cho told VICE World News. “I wanted everyone to feel they can add value and contribute to society regardless of their wealth and age.”
Cho has researched how to turn excrement into power and money since 2015. Previously little known, the project has made global headlines as digital currencies gain mainstream interest, with technology sites calling his money “literal shitcoin,” a pejorative term usually reserved for cryptocurrencies with no value.
To demonstrate the idea, he built a two-story experimental complex on the institute’s campus in 2018, featuring bedrooms and toilets that generate renewable energy from feces.
Three toilets, called “BeeVi” (a combination of the words “bee” and “vision”), pump human waste into an underground storage tank, where it is broken down by microorganisms into methane. The methane is then burned to power the adjacent bedrooms. “When we fart, it releases methane gas which can be utilised as bio-energy,” Cho explained. “Likewise, your feces also can make methane gas, which can power a hot water boiler.”
Whatever is left of the feces can be used as manure, he said.
“One healthy person defecates on average 500g a day, which can produce around 50 liters of methane gas,” he said. “The daily output from one person can produce 0.5kWh of electricity, enough for an electric bus to travel 500 meters or for an electric car to travel 3 kilometers.”
In order to reward contributors, Cho created Feces Standard Money.
Users of the toilet are entitled to 10 Ggool a day by scanning a QR code after pooping.
“10 Ggool refers to the value of one person’s output each day,” the poop researcher said. “I wanted to differentiate the value of Ggool from other currencies such as the U.S. Dollar, the Korean Won, and Bitcoin, and make people rethink the current currency system.”
The tokens can be used to buy products or food in Ggool Market, a store on the campus of about 5,000 students.
They are even accepted by about 20 affiliated stores in the southeastern city of Ulsan, including cafes, bars, restaurants, and clinics, he said.
“You can buy a cup of coffee or some everyday products after excretion,” Cho said. He estimates that about 1,000 people, most of them students and participants in his project, currently have Ggool.
Yu Hyeon-jung, a PhD student who majors in urban and environmental engineering at UNIST, is one of the students who enjoys using Feces Standard Money in her daily life. “I often buy fruits such as bananas or mandarins with the money,” she told VICE World News.
“Feces sounded dirty and ridiculous before I used the toilet. Now I don’t have prejudices, know the value in feces, and don’t hesitate to say the word.”
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