By Chukwuma Muanya
A Nigerian scientist has obtained a patent for his pioneer work in converting urine into flammable gases. The breakthrough of Ejikeme Patrick Nwosu, 31-year-old, has raised the hope of the world in using urine to solve its energy crisis.
Nwosu got Patent No NG/P/20/2013/699 for developing a process for conversion of urine into hydrogen-ammonia rich flammable gases and fire resistant materials.
Nwosu, a graduate of Pure and Industrial Chemistry from Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka (NAU), Anambra State with a Master of Science degree in Organic Chemistry from the University of Ibadan (UI), Oyo State, had claimed this process could replace fossil fuel in the near future.
Also, Indian researchers have developed "The Urine Engine." The study was published recently in OSR Journal Of Environmental Science, Toxicology And Food Technology by Yogendra G. Nandagaoli of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Rasika R. Kakade of the Department of E&TC, SGBAU, Amravati, India.
The Patent Certificate for Nwosu's discovery with No 000698 granted for a period of 20 years on October 13, 2014, and signed by the Registrar of Patents and Designs reads: "The Federal Government being willing to encourage all inventions which may be for public good, is please to accede to the request by Ejikeme Patrick Nwosu of 3 Jaba Road, Ungwan Boro, Kaduna South, Kaduna State, Nigeria, C/O Edumejowo & Associates, Suite 14 Peemas Complex, 13 Jere Street by Rita Lori Hotel, Garki II, Abuja, for the sole use and advantage of an Invention for: Conversion of Urine into Hydrogen-Ammonia Rich Flammable Gases and Fire Resistant Materials... "
Nwosu said: "It is obvious that our crude oil reserves will be exhausted in few decades to come. When this happens we will be forced to use other sources of fuel, but it would be more prudent to start acting prior to such state. Apart from this, fossil fuel has a lot of dangers that come with it; chief among them is climatic disorders. In order to leave our world better than I met it, I ventured into research on urine and have made some notable successes that can change the world forever.
"After years of study, I have successfully developed a process that converts urine into flammable gases. These gases can be used as an alternative to fossil fuel. This process is cheap, easy and very feasible. It requires treating urine with some substances I identified after years of study. No external heat is required for this process. The flammable gas is rich in hydrogen and ammonia. Both can be used directly to generate energy or could be further purified upon chemical treatments to get hydrogen of very high purity. Hydrogen is the best fuel for engines because it poses no threat to the environment, it produces water vapour as a by-product."
Nwosu said the United States government alone had invested billions of dollars in projects that could produce hydrogen from various sources and it was high time the government acted on this.
He further explained: "Trillions of litres of urine are generated annually globally with an average adult producing about 2.5 litres daily. Contrary to people's view of urine as a waste, I see urine as the solution to our highly sought clean, renewable and affordable energy. Very soon, urine will be for sale. You are welcome to our laboratory anytime for demo, while coming do so with a bottle or bottles of urine and watch me change it to fire."
"In order to leave our world better than I met it, I ventured into research on urine and have made some notable successes that can change the world forever."
The Indian researchers concluded: "The energy required for urea electrolysis is 35 per cent less, which generated 40 per cent cheaper hydrogen compared to water electrolysis. For this system, the exhaust gas is the water vapour. It does not emit carbon monoxide like the normal fuel-based engine so this ensures clean environment for people.
"Again, one litre of urine can give you six hours of electricity. The source of urine is naturally available from human being and cattle so there is availability of hydrogen easily. Using an electrolytic approach to produce hydrogen from urine is the most abundant waste on Earth at a fraction of the cost of producing hydrogen from water.
"The hydrogen gas gives many more applications in all the fields such as in cars, vehicles and it is burned to provide heat. But it requires special arrangement. It is used to drive turbine, in internal combustion engines for motive and electrical power. Urea naturally hydrolyses into ammonia before generating gas phase ammonia emissions. These emissions lead to the formation of ammonium sulphate and nitrate particulates in the air, which cause a variety of health problems including chronic bronchitis, asthma attacks and premature death."
They continued: "Nothing is really a waste in the real sense of the word. Almost anything one can think of is reusable. Everything has some value one way or another. The pollution increases in the world due to carbon monoxide poisoning from fossil-fuel engine, the movement of petroleum products prices, environmental degradation and the recent fuel subsidy scam.
"So we started looking at different materials, one of which was urine. It is liquid, something that has hydrogen molecules in it. The amount of voltage it takes to break a urine molecule is less than the amount it takes to break the hydrogen molecule in water. So urine electrolyzed, releasing hydrogen- oxygen gas mixture from it, then hydrogen gas is purified. The purified hydrogen gas is then pushed into the engine."
Urine turned into hydrogen fuel
In a report published 2009 in Discovery News, the Ohio University scientists said they could create large amounts of cheap hydrogen from urine that could be burned or used in fuel cells, using a nickel-based electrode.
Scientists from Ohio University, United States, were among the first, in July 2009, to describe the possibility of developing urine-powered cars, homes and personal electronic devices in the Royal Society of Chemistry's Chemistry Communications.
The study on the new technology that accomplishes the direct conversion of urine and urea to pure hydrogen via electrochemical oxidation with an inexpensive nickel catalyst is titled "Urea electrolysis: direct hydrogen production from urine."
The researchers wrote: "The utilisation of wastewater for useful fuel has been gathering recent attention due to society's need for alternative energy sources. The electroxidation of urea found at high concentrations in wastewater simultaneously accomplishes fuel production and remediation of harmful nitrogen compounds that currently make their way into the atmosphere and groundwater. Pure hydrogen was collected in the cathode compartment at 1.4 V cell potential, where water electrolysis does not occur appreciably. It was determined that an inexpensive nickel catalyst is the most active and stable for the process."
Also, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) reported on August 19, 2010, of a research team at Heriot-Watt University, United Kingdom, investigating whether urine could be used as a source of renewable energy.
Indeed, U.S. researchers had in 2009 developed an efficient way of producing hydrogen from urine - a feat that could not only fuel the cars of the future, but could also help clean up municipal waste water.
Using hydrogen to power cars has become an increasingly attractive transportation fuel, as the only emission produced is water - but a major stumbling block is the lack of a cheap, renewable source of the fuel.
Botte may now have found the answer, using an electrolytic approach to produce hydrogen from urine - the most abundant waste on Earth - at a fraction of the cost of producing hydrogen from water.
Botte said the idea came to her several years ago at a conference on fuel cells, where they were discussing how to turn clean water into clean power. "I wondered how we could do this better," she added - so started looking at waste streams as a better source of molecules from which to produce hydrogen.
Urine's major constituent is urea, which incorporates four hydrogen atoms per molecule - importantly, less tightly bonded than the hydrogen atoms in water molecules. Botte used electrolysis to break the molecule apart, developing an inexpensive new nickel-based electrode to selectively and efficiently oxidise the urea. To break the molecule down, a voltage of 0.37V needs to be applied across the cell - much less than the 1.23V needed to split water.
Electrolysis breaks down the urea, releasing hydrogen
Botte told Chemistry World: "During the electrochemical process the urea gets adsorbed on to the nickel electrode surface, which passes the electrons needed to break up the molecule. Pure hydrogen is evolved at the cathode, while nitrogen plus a trace of oxygen and hydrogen were collected at the anode. While carbon dioxide is generated during the reaction, none is found in the collected gasses as it reacts with the potassium hydroxide in the solution to form potassium carbonate."
The group initially tested their process with 'synthetic' urine made of dissolved urea, but also showed that the process works just as well with real human urine. "It took us some time to get clearance to work with human urine - which held up publication of the research," Botte said.
According to Botte, currently available processes that can remove urine from water are expensive and inefficient. Urea naturally hydrolyses into ammonia before generating gas phase ammonia emissions. These emissions lead to the formation of ammonium sulphate and nitrate particulates in the air, which cause a variety of health problems including chronic bronchitis, asthma attacks and premature death.
The group is currently conducting long-term stability studies on their electrolysis systems, as well as conducting computational experiments to better understand the mechanisms at work.
Botte believes the technology could be easily scaled up to generate hydrogen while cleaning up the effluent from sewage plants. "We do not need to reinvent the wheel as there are already electrolysers being used in different applications." She believes the only the thing that would hamper the process would be the presence of a lot of salt.
Bruce Logan, an expert in energy generation from wastewater and director of Pennsylvania State University's H2E Center and Engineering Environmental Institute, applauded Botte's efforts in developing a more energy efficient way of producing hydrogen than splitting water. However, he did caution that urea gets converted very quickly into ammonia by bacteria, which could limit the usefulness of the technique.
However, Logan does feel that it would be a good idea to start saving up urine - although not for the hydrogen. "You have to remember the P [phosphorus] in pee - globally we need to start thinking about conserving phosphorus for fertiliser, because, just like oil, one day the deposits are all going to run out and we need to start building phosphorus recycling into our infrastructure," he said.