By Tracy Staedter, Discovery Channel
Everybody poops. But why should it just stop there? Feces — human or other — contains methane, hydrogen and nitrogen that can be converted into energy. And while it may seem a little gross as first, converting waste into power is generally cheap and reduces greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In the not-so-distant future, don’t be surprised if you find poo providing energy in any of these places.
Explore how we will change the way we make and use energy, from basic day-to-day changes to dramatic, state-of-the-art technology.
1. Dog Parks (above)
Dog parks around the country could benefit from this prototype invention developed in Cambridge, Mass., by Artist Matthew Mazzotta. He created Park Spark, which runs park lights using dog waste. Itís simple and convenient. A dog owner uses a biodegradable bag provided to pick up her pet’s excrement. She tosses the bag into a tube, which leads to an underground digester. Microorganisms break down the organic material, and in doing so, give off methane. Next, the dog owner turns a crank, which mixes the organic material and causes the methane gas to rise up. The methane can be captured and used to produce power.
Photo Credit: Park Spark Project
2. The Open Road
GENeco, a subsidiary of the British sewage treatment company Wessex Water, is working with Volkswagen to develop the Bio-Bug, which runs on sewage. Bacteria are used to digest the sewage and produce methane, which is then turned into a biofuel and put into the tank of a converted 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine. GENeco says that 70 households’ worth of human waste is enough to power the vehicle for a year, or 10,000 miles.
Photo Credit: GENeco
Satellites generally get their power from the sun. But researchers are investigating whether certain bacteria can withstand the harsh conditions of space and be used to convert feces into hydrogen for fuel cells. Two experiments, spearheaded by a group in Russia and in Florida, are being flown on CubeSats, miniaturized satellites that usually have a volume of one liter. The satellites will remain in orbit from three to five years.
4. Water Treatment Plants
Wastewater treatment plants tend to produce a lot of nitrous oxide, a terrible greenhouse gas. The same gas is used in rocket thrusters. So some researchers at Stanford came up a with a way to use the nitrous oxide as a propellant in rocket motors that generate electricity to ultimately power the wastewater treatment plant.
5. Computer Server Facilities
One cow poops more than 120 pounds of manure every day Ė thatís tens of billions of tons of cow manure created annually. Whatís worse, it produces more than 26 gallons of methane gas that get dumped into the atmosphere each day. But plenty of researchers are looking at ways to convert cow and pig manure into methane, which can be used as a biogas to run generators that create electricity for homes or computer servers.
Google recently invested in a facility northwest of Yadkinville, N.C., that uses pig waste to power 35 homes. And Hewlett-Packard released a study in 2010, called “Design of Farm Waste-Driven Supply Side Infrastructure for Data Centers,” that said a dairy farmer could rent out land and power to technology companies and get a return on the investment in less than two years.
6. Music Festivals
Rather than flush urine down the toilet, as most of us do, researchers at Bristol Robotics Lab are looking for ways to recycle it in order to power microbial fuel cells. The fuel cells, still in the early stages, could be used to power robots in space, or, back on Earth, could be connected to portable urinals at music festivals and other outdoor events, helping to light the grounds.
Fuel cells usually rely on flammable hydrogen gas or toxic methanol to generate electricity, but researchers from Heriot-Watt University’s School of Engineering and Physical Sciences in Edinburgh have found a way to use urea, an organic chemical compound produced as waste when the body metabolizes protein. Their prototype breaks urine from humans or animals down into water, nitrogen and CO2, and also produces electricity at the same time. Such a fuel cell could work well to create electricity on islands, deserts and even on submarines.