Researchers at Heriot-Watt University in the United Kingdom have figured out how to use urea as a fuel for low-cost fuel cells. Fuel cells are a great form of alternative energy for all kinds of things — cars, submarines, remote power stations — but concern over the cost of hydrogen and its explosive nature keep the technology from being widely used. Using urea — which is present in all animal and human urine — instead of hydrogen could be a low cost alternative to these super low-emission systems.
Dr Shanwen Tao and his research partner Dr Rong Lan have developed the urea fuel cell system which they call the Carbamide Power System. They have just been awarded a grant of $200,000 by the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council to continue their research. Fuel cells work by converting chemical energy into electricity with heat as a byproduct — hydrogen fuel cells are the most widespread and they emit water as a byproduct.
Hydrogen fuel cells also require extremely expensive membranes to create energy. Tao and Lan’s fuel cell uses a much less expensive membrane and the components are totally harmless — urea is used as fuel instead of highly flammable and expensive hydrogen. Even better, this fuel is totally renewable — just keep drinking those 8 glasses of water a day. Dr. Tao is excited about the prospects of their discovery. Tao noted that, “if this renewable material can be used as a commercially-viable and environmentally-friendly energy source then we will be absolutely delighted, and many people around the world will benefit.”