UK university develops urine-powered wearables
December 15, 2015
A pair of socks embedded with miniaturised microbial fuel cells (MFCs) and fuelled with urine pumped by the wearer's footsteps has powered a wireless transmitter to send a signal to a PC. This is claimed to be the first self-sufficient system powered by a wearable energy generator based on microbial fuel cell technology.
The technology was described in a scientific paper “Self-sufficient Wireless Transmitter Powered by Foot-pumped Urine Operating Wearable MFC” published in the Bioinspiration & Biomimetics journal.
The paper describes a lab-based experiment led by Professor Ioannis Ieropoulos, of the Bristol BioEnergy Centre at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol). The centre is based in the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, a collaborative partnership between the UWE Bristol and the University of Bristol.
Soft MFCs embedded within a pair of socks were supplied with fresh urine, circulated by the human operator walking. Normally, continuous-flow MFCs would rely on a mains powered pump to circulate the urine over the microbial fuel cells, but this experiment relied solely on human activity.
The manual pump was based on a simple fish circulatory system and the action of walking caused the urine to pass over the MFCs and generate energy. Soft tubes, placed under the heels, ensured frequent fluid push-pull by walking. The wearable MFC system successfully ran a wireless transmission board, which was able to send a message every two minutes to the PC-controlled receiver module.
“Having already powered a mobile phone with MFCs using urine as fuel, we wanted to see if we could replicate this success in wearable technology,” said Ieropoulos. “We also wanted the system to be entirely self-sufficient, running only on human power – using urine as fuel and the action of the foot as the pump.”
He said the work opened up possibilities of using waste for powering portable and wearable electronics.
“For example, recent research shows it should be possible to develop a system based on wearable MFC technology to transmit a person's coordinates in an emergency situation,” he said. “At the same time this would indicate proof of life since the device will only work if the operator's urine fuels the MFCs.”
MFCs use bacteria to generate electricity from waste fluids. They tap into the biochemical energy used for microbial growth and convert it directly into electricity. This technology can use any form of organic waste and turn it into useful energy without relying on fossil fuels, making this a valuable green technology.
The centre has recently launched a prototype urinal in partnership with charity Oxfam that uses pee-power technology to light cubicles in refugee camps.