Thursday, August 07, 2014

Quackser Fortune may have been on to something

When I was young and went to a lot of movies – there were not, after all, that many channels on TV and there were NO reality shows – one of the movies I went to see was Quackser Fortune has a Cousin in the Bronx.

This film starred Gene Wilder as a hapless Irishman who, like Molly Malone, wheeled a wheel barrow, through streets broad and narrow, in Dublin. Only he wasn’t crying “cockles, and muscles, alive, alive-o”. The one and only thing I remember about this movie was that Quackser was crying, “fresh dung.” (Charmingly pronounced, “fresh dooong.”) He collected it from horse cart droppings, and sold it to gardeners.

Have I thought of Quackser Fortune in years?


But, upon reading a recent article in The Economist, I have now.

That’s where I learned that:

The BioEnergy Team, led by Ioannis Ieropoulos of the Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL) in Britain, are hoping to profit from working with the stuff too. They have developed a new technique to turn urine into electrical power—or “urine-tricity” as they call it. (Source: The Economist)

Apparently, the world population, collectively, takes a 6.4 trillion litre whiz each year, putting it right up there with wind and solar as an “abundant resource.” And it can even trump wind and solar’s near ubiquity by being something that’s always at, ahem, hand.

At the core of urine-tricity are microbial fuel cells (MFCs), which contain live microbes. When urine flows through an MFC the microbes consume it as part of their normal metabolic process. This, in turn, frees electrons. Electrodes within the cell gather these electrons and when they are connected to an external circuit a current is generated.

And the power output that can be generated by capturing fresh urine is triple that of the other sources of waste (food scraps, dead insects, etc.) that BRL experimented with.

Where earlier tests produced minimal power, urine had the vim to recharge commercially available batteries, including those in mobile phones.

Ah, the vim of urine! So full to the brim with piss and vinegar!

Of course, we’ll need to reconfigure our toilet eco-system to catch things midstream. Until then, I guess we can just capture our own and haul it in buckets to an energy station. This could be a drag, as the urine needs to be fresh – one week old, at the outside – which would require a weekly run. That could get boring fast. Or it could mean a new business for an enterprising lad like Quackser Fortune, who could roll his wheelbarrow around, hollering “Fresh Pee!”

And, of course, some enterprising Silicon Valley types will come up with an app in which Quackser shows up on your doorstep to collect your catch of the day as soon as he is summoned on his iPhone.

But the need for new toilet types, or for cadres of pee-collecting tradesmen, to emerge shouldn’t bean issue in areas where plenty of new toilets are being built. Given that:

…over 2.5 billion people around the world have no access to proper sanitation.

It seems that the toilet-construction business should be a good one to get into. (Not having access to decent sanitation is, of course, a major public health problem, and obviously requires more infrastructure change than just plunking down some new Totos.)

Anyway, being able to turn a profit on the by-product of proper sanitation might be enough to push some governments into investing in it.

Meanwhile, there are plans afoot to look at #2 as a potential source of power as well.

Yet another super-abundant resource.

Quackser Fortune, come on down!

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