With half the country plagued by drought and a global water crisis around the corner, do you ever feel like flushing your piss down the toilet is wasteful? (Pun intended.) What if science made a magical machine that could turn that urine back into drinking water? We’d save on sewage facilities. Fields would be lush and well watered. Children would go thirsty no more.
Believe it or not, scientists have been working really hard on this challenge for many years, and they’re starting to make some impressive progress. A team at the University of Massachusetts gets to brag about the latest breakthrough, a “green latrine” that purifies human waste and turns it into electricity. Properly named the Microbial Fuel Cell Latrine, the device works a lot like a battery with an anode and cathode. Acting as a fuel, the waste is fed into the anode chamber where it’s oxidized with the help of bacteria on the anode surface. This process then releases electrons that go through a load-bearing circuit to produce electricity that’s then sent to the cathode chamber which acts as an electron donor and captures the energy of the electrons. What’s left when the reactions are complete are purified water and stored power that can light a village.
You have to admit it: a machine that can turn poop and pee into power and electricity is pretty amazing. For certain remote parts of the world, access to electricity is virtually impossible, and the water crisis is only going to get worse. A 2008 study estimated that 75 percent of the planet will be plagued with freshwater scarcity by 2050. The other integral side benefit of this process is improved sanitation. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, who funded the work at UMass-Amherst, flagged this as a problem worth tackling last year and set up a water, sanitation and hygiene department to support research projects aimed at addressing it. Coming up with creative new ways to use human excrement makes up about half of what they do.
Bill Gates is actually sort of late to the pee purification party. NASA’s been all over this concept since the late 1990s, when the started experimenting with ways that astronauts could recycle their water supply. (That’s a nice way of saying “drink their own piss.”) The agency invested nearly $150 million in urine filtering technology in hopes that they would offset the $12 million cost of shuttling water to and from the International Space Station. The purification process, known as “forward osmosis,” is actually relatively simple. Urine is fed into a machine that pulls it through a semi-permeable membrane, filtering out the impurities and yielding potable water that’s injected into little silver bags that essentially look like Capri Suns. The astronauts apparently love it.
Recycled urine isn’t just good for drinking. In fact, farmers and local governments have been using reclaimed water for ages to power outdoor fountains and water parks and golf courses. However, until recently, this water hasn’t been considered potable. As these droughts have gotten worse, municipal governments are upping the ante and investing millions of dollars into toilet-to-tap technology. Big Spring, Texas broke ground a year ago on a plant that will send 2 million gallons of cleaned sewage a day back into the regular water supply. A similar system is under construction in Los Angeles that could provide up to 5 percent of the city’s drinking water.
But you don’t need all of this fancy technology to drink your own pee. Turns out that urban legend about how your body’s able to process urine for a certain amount of time is true. In fact, this woman has been drinking her own urine, gleefully, for years. It also makes great lotion, apparently.