This morning I spotted an interesting post in my Facebook feed about a group of Nigerian school girls who had invented a generator that uses urine as fuel. According to this article on Forbes.com the generator uses one liter of fuel to provide 6 hours of electricity. This could have an amazing effect on a continent like Africa where electricity infrastructure is often non-existent, and where it does exist it tends to work badly.
Now, this sounds great and at first glance it would seem that these girls have really discovered something interesting. But all you have to do is think about it a little bit and you will see that this is actually not all it’s cracked up to be.
First of all, the article I posted is from November 2012. That raises a red flag in my head because if something with this kind of potential to uplift people’s lives were legitimate, you’d have seen more of it by now. There would be prototypes and public information campaigns. People would be spreading the news like they do with the solar powered oven and wind-up radio.
But the real problem with this story is the very first step in the urine-electricity generation process:
Urine is put into an electrolytic cell, which separates out the hydrogen.
An electrolytic cell.
Using electricity to create an otherwise non-spontaneous chemical reaction.
And right there the urine powered generator falls over like a tripod with two legs. What’s happening is they are using electricity to create electricity.
Because nature runs on laws, in this case we will apply the law of conservation of energy. No system can create more energy than it consumes. At best these young ladies have found a way to use electricity to make less electricity.
I applaud them for their ingenuity, and hope that they will go on to create truly exciting inventions that revolutionise the lives of the poor. This, however, is not it.