A urine-powered generator? Don’t be so silly…

It is all over the Internet and news, three Nigerian school girls have invented a urine-powered generator that can produce electricity for 6 hours from a single litre of urine!

Really? Sadly, no.

I can’t find an original source for this story, where did it come from? [was it here?] Are there really some Nigerian school girls with a urine-powered generator or is this just a hoax? Either way, all those journalists that repeated the story really should be ashamed of themselves, it is so obviously wrong and/or untrue.


The first red flag is the “6 hours of electricity”. Electrical energy, is not measured in units of hours any more than distance is. Any real science journalist would spot this immediately.

And then there is the urine itself. Read about this generator and you will see that the girls are separating the water in the urine using electrolysis. Think about this for a second, electricity is consumed to separate the water into hydrogen and oxygen which are then burned in the generator to create more electricity.

Since we have to obey the laws of thermodynamics, AKA conservation of energy, no system can create more energy than it consumes, including this one. Therefore there is something else going on here, the generator is not running on urine. At best they have invented a method of turning some electricity into less electricity.

Once again journalists who really should know better are so desperate to write stories and provide content that they don’t bother to engage their brain at any point and ask the simple question “is this story true?”. They end up printing risible nonsense and looking really stupid and force me to debunk what is, at best, noting more that a really nice, but wrong, school project and, at worst, just a hoax.

Look up “solar tree Fibonacci” on Google for another example. This story is still repeated across the Internet by news and technology sites despite it being thoroughly and completely debunked.

Here are just some of the idiots repeating this “news”:

http://ecogeek.org/component/content/article/3840

http://www.wired.com/design/2012/11/urine-powered-generator/

http://thesop.org/story/20121114/nigerian-teen-girls-create-urinepowered-generator.html

http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/bulletin/african-teens-create-urine-powered-generator/5206

http://www.codewit.com/africa/africa/3301-four-nigerian-teenage-girls-develop-a-urine-powered-generator

http://www.techzim.co.zw/2012/11/urine-powered-generator-developed-nigerian-girls/

http://www.mobilenapps.com/articles/5021/20121112/urine-powered-generator-created-nigerian-teenage-girls.htm

http://www.ubergizmo.com/2012/11/urine-powered-generator-developed-by-teenagers-showcased-at-maker-faire-africa-2012/

http://www.greenoptimistic.com/2012/11/09/urine-powered-generator-delivers-hours-of-continuous-electricity/#.UKTjzoepCE0

http://www.businessdayonline.com%2FNG%2Findex.php%2Fpower%2F47372-teenagers-invent-urine-powered-generator

http://www.greenpacks.org/2012/11/14/four-nigerian-teens-invent-pee-powered-generator/

9 Comments

  1. JWtje:

    What a load of crap. I feel really sorry for the morons that buy this junk.
    I know a little about thermodynamics and engine efficiency but let me try to explain to you why you got financially raped.
    Forget about the thermodynamics, engine efficiency and alternator efficiency.

    Found a kit on the net suitable for big V8 or even V10 engines. 4.7 liters and up.

    This piece of crap produces a whopping 5-6 liters of magic HHO per minute.

    Let’s say we’ve got ourselves a moderate 5.0 liter V8. At 3000 rpm this engine will consume close to 7500 liters of air a minute(3000 x 5 / 2(4-stroke)) but since we are cruising and have a lot engine vacuum lets’s say the engine eats 3000 liters of air a minute.
    A maximum of 0.2% of the total volume entering the engine will be your magic rip off gas. There will be approximately 200 liters of vapourized fuel entering the engine at that specific rpm.
    Adding 0.2% of magic will never, ever improve your gas mileage 15-25%. Besides that 95% of the fuel you spray into an engine will be burnt. 30% into motion, 30% heat into your colling system, another 30% of heat leaves trough your exhaust and 5% into noise.
    Adding 0.2% of this gas is going to turn energy that is normally turned in heat i to motion. Dream on Gandalf.

    Oh yeah, how about those 50Amps needed to power up that fart box.

    C-4 burns pretty well right. So does HHO. I’ve never tried it but think this would be safe at home as well. Forget abou the engine and let’s take a candle.

    Would you have the guts to light a candle that has 0.2% of C-4 in it?

    I would.

  2. Bruce:

    Did you bother to Google “convert urine to hydrogen”? I doubt it. If you had you would have found plenty of support for the idea. Here is just one from 2009…

    Urea electrolysis: direct hydrogen production from urine
    Bryan K. Boggs, Rebecca L. King and Gerardine G. Botte*
    Received (in Cambridge, UK) 25th March 2009, Accepted 11th June 2009
    First published as an Advance Article on the web 1st July 2009
    DOI: 10.1039/b905974a

  3. Jon:

    Hi Bruce,
    Can you emplane how extracting hydrogen from urine is relevant to this at all? I don’t see the connection.

  4. Kovac:

    @Jon
    Extracting hydrogen from urine is what the electrolysis does, as the source states by the way. The author of this text tries to discredit the fuel cell saying it uses electrolysis to separate “water from urine”, yet that’s not what electrolysis does. And separating hydrogen from urine—which contains urea and ammonia, both hydrogen-rich—is much more efficient than from water, as many sources confirm, including the one Bruce posted.

    The author of this critic also ignores that removing hydrogen from a fuel through electrolysis is a valid method for generating energy in fuel cells, for example, so his invocation of the first law of thermodynamics is wrongful.

    But since the girls seem to be feeding the hydrogen into an explosion motor, which is a very inefficient process of generating electrical energy, I tend to believe his claim is ultimately right: it’s unlikely that the energy generated by a motor can exceed that which is used to power the electrolytic cell.

  5. Jon:

    HI there Kavoc,
    There is no “fuel cell” here, just electrolysis.
    Urine is almost entirely water, H2O. The hydrogen in the other compounds in the urine are in pretty insignificant quantities when compared to the hydrogen in the water.
    Lets say that the engine uses 100 units of energy; the first law of thermodynamics tells us that you can’t get back more than 100 units from whatever work the engine (in this case making hydrogen from urine) did and the second law tells us that you can’t even get all 100 units back. Electrolysis is a very inefficient way of getting the energy from water, for example it wastes a lot of energy in making heat… so for your 100 units of energy you started with you get back say 50 in hydrogen, the system is 50% efficient… this 50 units of energy is fed back into the engine to make more hydrogen but since the system is only 50% efficient we get back 25 units of energy… so we run out of energy very quickly and the laws of physics are preserved… if not then you have created a perpetual motion machine and those are not allowed…

  6. Ken Hayes Jr.:

    In thinking this through one should be VERY mindful of the first laws of thermodynamics. If it takes a dozen electrons to remove a dozen hydrogen atoms at a fixed potential. That is the definition of power. The quantity of electrons passing by a point, in a fixed time at a fixed voltage, is how we get watts. The number of watts at the end of the day here CAN NEVER be more than the watts that came out of the solution in the form of hydrogen. If we had a machine that could by magic make more energy than was put in, we would not need to worry about all that cesium floating around the Pacific right about now.

  7. Chazz:

    The origin of this article, appears to be Reuters, their standards are slipping:
    http://www.reuters.com/news/video/technology?videoId=239348466

    The second comment by Bruce, refers to support for this idea from research by 3 people including Geraldine Botte, however she is realistic about this project:
    The Ohio University chemical engineer who invented the urea electrolysis process, Gerardine Botte, was asked by NBC News to comment on the generator. She responded, “What these kids are doing is taking urea electrolysis and making hydrogen and then using that hydrogen to make electricity.” Botte concluded, however, “You will never get more energy out than you put in because you are treating urea … but it is a unique and elegant way to treat urine waste, which will allow you to co-generate electricity.”
    Source: http://wafflesatnoon.com/2013/05/17/urine-powered-generator/

    The girl in the video says that the hydrogen is temporarily stored in the gas container. In other words this isn’t a continuous process, making a lie of what the commentator says. The piping and equipment looks suitable for maybe 30psi/ 2 atm (atmospheric pressure).

    Hydrogen gas at 1,000 psi (medium pressure rocket tank) has a density of 1/120th the density of petrol.
    So with a gas bottle filled to 2 atm then emptied to 1 atm, we’re talking 15 psi of drop, which is 1/67th of 1,000 psi, so would therefore have a density of 1/(120*67) = 1/8040th of that of petrol.

    Hydrogen gives off three times the BTUs per gram, so 1/8040 *3 = 1/2680

    That gas bottle looks like its about ten litres (10,000cc). 1/2680th of 10,000 means you’re getting about the BTU equivalent of 4 cc of petrol per each time you run it.

    Of course, that wont be anywhere near enough BTU’s to convert into electricity to produce the next batch of hydrogen by electrolysis.

    I’m very disappointed with Reuters for relaying pseudo-science, but well done to the girls for making what they did. It’s the commentary that is misleading.

  8. lol@theconfused:

    You guys are really funny… you did not even catch that you need a catalyst to improve on regular electrolysis which makes the electricity needed much much lower. Its a fuel cell ! What a bunch of trolls lol…

  9. Pritch:

    This idea has been around since 2007 (note the bibliography on this article, which contains a diagram for how this would work). The real problem is that this setup in the photo is combustible.
    http://www.ohio.edu/ceer/research/urea.cfm

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