Urine To Power Generators
May Also Create Brain Cells
News about bodily functions hardly excites us. More than a matter of taste, there’s not really much point into reducing our humanity to its mechanical underpinnings. Unless, of course, you’re part of the medical community. Or make crass jokes for a living. Or are in high school.
But amid the flood of depressing news, 2012 had at least two stories worth our urge to celebrate: one, about four African girls who developed a urine-powered electricity generator; the other, about research to reprogram cells found in urine into neurons to fight disease.
While the generator is ready and, depending on funding, may fulfill a huge huge gap in clean energy, the research is still in its initial, albeit promising, stages. Both, though, beat anything a teenager, or a comedian, or both, could possibly do with such lowly source of material.
The year had, naturally, its share of sophomoric stories about er… bladder discharges. Such as the boxer known for drinking his own ‘product,’ who scored a major victory on the ring, just a few weeks ago, and a publicity stunt in Brazil, for a urinal that sounds like an electric guitar when used.
For the record, we’re not uptight about it, if there’s a point about even mentioning urine. Two years ago, some bars in the U.K. had a game of ‘hit the spot‘ and watch it power an ultra-quick video game on the screen in front of the user. Those who enjoy spending time in the restroom, liked it.
By far, though, the most depressing news about it was Michael Phelps‘s confession (as if we needed to know) that most swimmers (that means, he for sure, and others he wouldn’t mention by name) have the habit of peeing in the pool before competition starts. So much for telling our kids how gross that is.
That’s right, the winner of a record 22 Olympic medals, is not nearly as accomplished as a public role model outside the water. His golden opportunity to remain silent was not just missed, but also enough to obscure what some at FourSquare once thought it’d be a clever way to propagate their brand (don’t ask).
THE GENIUS OF AFRICAN GIRLS
What teenagers Duro-Aina Adebola, Akindele Abiola, Faleke Oluwatoyin, and Bello Eniola have accomplished at the Maker Faire in Lagos, Nigeria, goes beyond the generator they’ve developed, though. In fact, the process that converts urea into energy had been already invented by a team led by Geraldine Botte, an Ohio University chemical engineer.
It not the contraption itself either, at least, not for its apparent most obvious application: to generate electricity. That is because the amount of energy needed to power it would surpass its output. Botte even suggests that such technology is most practical as a way to make wastewater treatment process more energy efficient.
But it should not be so easily dismissed, as Botte herself seem to imply by telling NBC News that ‘it’s a high school project, so don’t take it [so seriously].’ What the distinguished engineer is overlooking is the relevance of their accomplishment at setting a positive example for other African girls.
There can hardly be a more patronizing way to put it than to call their effort ’empowering,’ when what’s in store for millions of girls just like Duro-Aina, Akindele, Faleke, and Bello, instead of ‘school projects,’ is sexual slavery, disease, and subhuman conditions of living. Most don’t even know anyone like these girls.
But let’s cut some slack to the Ohio U. faculty member, and focus on her ‘electrolytic cell.’ It converts urea, urine’s main compound, into nitrogen, water and hydrogen, which is then used to make electricity. Since the raw material is everywhere, to find applications to the device is necessary but not really the point about what the girls have achieved in Lagos.
BRAIN CELLS FROM YOUR BLADDER
A more academic-oriented research is being conducted at China’s Guangzhou Institutes of Biomedicine and Health, by a team led by stem-cell biologist Duanqing Pei. They’ve found a way to turn cells discarded in human urine into neural progenitor cells, the precursors of neurons, without involving the always risky embryonic stem cells process.
The procedure of reprogramming cells is already routinely done by researchers with cultured skin and blood cells, with the end result being the production of cells that can go on to form any cell in the body. The difference here is that urine is a more accessible source, and the whole process, more straightforward.
The research is still in its experimentation phase, but demand for a quick and safe therapy to a variety of diseases, using reprogrammed cells, is on the rise. Besides, while skin and blood donors are a selected percentage of the population, urine can be provided by practically all seven billion-plus humans currently walking on earth.
Another important element of the innovative method is that it lowers the risk of producing tumors, a common occurrence when handling embryonic cells, writes Monya Baker for the online edition of Nature. The potential for the technique is practically endless, including the possibility of one day to be applied in the treatment of neuro-degenerative diseases.
THE BODY AS A RECYCLING ENGINE
Pretty much everything about the human body is, naturally, recyclable and may potentially, be manipulated into another stage of usefulness, including after it dies. In that way, it emulates what the planet itself does with its huge but limited amount of resources: it recycles and reprocesses everything over and over.
We’re not quite there, but what the African girls and the Chinese researchers are showing is that we’re heading fast to a point where such line of scientific progress will be not only necessary but crucial to our survival. In many ways, it’s already ahead even of the development of artificial intelligence and self-sufficient robots.
There are ethical as well as practical considerations to be taken into account too. But at the end of the day, it’s not quite about the results, but how we’re managing to overcome obstacles that many stopped believing that we even could. Stem-cell research, for instance, faced a huge challenge from medieval misconceptions that institutions such as the church still shelter.
Nevertheless, this time at least, they’ve literally found another way. Better yet: no one had to make a rude joke about it. Which is probably what the African girls heard a lot, when they set out to be part of their own future. Just see how easy it is for even an intellectually privileged scientist to unwillingly embark into a dismissive mode about such enterprise.
But, given the unforgiven social realities of present day Africa, one may just imagine what else the four adolescents had to go through to reach the stage, and peace of mind, of actually contributing to something so vital and so practical to their (and our) world. That’s when it’s time to ask ourselves: what the hell are we doing with our time here, anyway?
* Minding your Ps
* Bovine Inspiration