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Fueling the Future…With Urine and Chicken Remnants

July 31, 2009

The moment you’ve all been waiting for is finally here! Scientists have discovered a way to make something we need (fuel) from a readily accessible, unlimited resource (pee) and a fairly abundant, otherwise useless resource (chicken feather meal).

Why do we need new sources of fuel? Ummm, because…

Oil is old school.

Coal is dirty.

Algae is promising, but not quite ready.

Poop is productive, but kinda stinky.

And ethanol would be grand if it didn’t require so much land.

Clearly, we need more options. Let’s start with the chicken feather meal, a delectable combination of processed chicken feathers, blood and innards. In other words, it’s waste—waste that’s used as animal feed* and fertilizer.

Well, it just so happens that there’s another use for this waste. Scientists from the University of Nevada have found a way to extract the fat from chicken feather meal to make biodiesel. Biodiesel is made from long chains of fatty acids found in vegetable oils (like soy, corn, canola and cotton seed oil) and animal fats (like chicken feather meal).

Of course, growing vegetables to make oils for biodiesel is kinda silly since we, umm, could be eating those vegetables. The most efficient way to produce biofuel, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is to use waste—like chicken feather meal. It just so happens that chicken feather meal is fatty (11% fat) and abundant. The researchers estimate that the amount of feather meal currently produced by the U.S. poultry industry could result in 150-200 million gallons of biodiesel. Using the feather meal from all the poultry processing operations in the world could result in 593.2 million gallons of biodiesel.

That’s a lot of biodiesel—and a lot of chicken feather meal. But we only need the fat from the feather meal to make biodiesel…so what happens to the rest of that nasty slop? It can still be used as animal feed and fertilizer. In fact, the fat-ectomy turns the chicken feather meal into a better animal feed and fertilizer. When the fat is sucked out of the feather meal, the remaining slop has a higher protein content and nitrogen content. The higher protein content makes it a higher-grade animal feed and the higher nitrogen content makes it a higher-grade fertilizer.

Okay, so scientists can extract fat from chicken feather meal to make biodiesel. That makes sense, but how do they make fuel from urine?

Biodiesel isn’t the only nouveau fuel. Hydrogen has been touted as the fuel of the future**…if scientists can just figure out how to make (and store) it cheaply. Until recently, water (H2O) provided the best way to store and transport hydrogen (H), but breaking the H2O into H required a whole lotta very expensive electricity. Then, scientists at Ohio University discovered pee—or, more specifically, the fabulous storage, transportation and hydrogen-producing qualities of pee.

Urine contains urea (CH4N2O), which contains four hydrogen atoms bonded to two nitrogen atoms. The bonds between hydrogen and nitrogen in urea are much looser than those connecting hydrogen and oxygen in water. That means that the bonds are a lot easier to break so producing hydrogen is a cinch (comparatively-speaking). The process goes like this: find a pool of urine, stick a specially-designed (yet inexpensive) electrode in urine, apply a little electrical current (about a quarter of the electricity required to release hydrogen from water), and poof, hydrogen gas is released.

The scientists predict that the urine from one cow could produce enough power to supply hot water to 19 homes.*** The current prototype is smaller than a Rubik’s Cube and produces 500 milliwatts of power. In the not-so-distant future, however, the scientists expect to take the technology to a much larger scale (for use in sewage treatment plants or livestock farms) and a slightly larger scale for individual or home use.

Pee. It’s not just for jellyfish stings or mating rituals anymore.

*We’ll save the discussion about feeding chicken feather meal to cattle, whose bodies are designed to process grass, for another post.

**Unlike fossil fuels, the only emission from hydrogen fuel is water.

***Umm, we’re not sure if that means that one day of one cow’s pee could power 19 houses for a single day or if the amount of urine that cow produces over a year would be enough to supply hot water to 19 houses for a one day. Still, it would be pretty cool to thank Bessie or Mabel or Bert—or whatever cow provides the pee—every time you take a hot shower.

Boggs, B., King, R., & Botte, G. (2009). Urea electrolysis: direct hydrogen production from urine Chemical Communications DOI: 10.1039/b905974a

Kondamudi, N., Strull, J., Misra, M., & Mohapatra, S. (2009). A Green Process for Producing Biodiesel from Feather Meal Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 57 (14), 6163-6166 DOI: 10.1021/jf900140e

5 Comments leave one →
  1. August 3, 2009 5:31 am

    Still, it would be pretty cool to thank Bessie or Mabel or Bert—or whatever cow provides the pee—every time you take a hot shower.

    One could call it a golden shower, in fact.


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