A bit of news from Maker Faire Africa 2012 got a lot of play last week: four teenaged students showed up at the festival of innovation in Lagos, Nigeria, with a clever device that world media immediately lauded as a "urine-powered generator." Breathless reports on the project repeated impressive-sounding statistics such as "one liter of urine produces six hours of electricity." But while the girls' project is indeed an impressive bit of creativity, most of the reporting got it wrong.
Teenaged inventors Duro-Aina Adebola, Akindele Abiola, Faleke Oluwatoyin, and Bello Eniola, all 14 years old aside from Eniola, the elder of the group at 15, used electrolysis to split the water in urine into hydrogen and oxygen. They then pumped the hydrogen through a container of liquid borax solution to remove any remaining water vapor, and from there into a generator, which burned the hydrogen to produce electrical power.
It's a clever project, especially given the inventors' ages. But the reporting got a few things wrong, inflating the "Whiz Kids'" project into a potentially world-saving device. It's not.
Most importantly, the project isn't a way to generate power. Splitting hydrogen out of water is always going to take more energy than burning the resulting energy will provide.
A good hint that the press coverage of this project wasn't particularly scientifically rigorous is that "six hours per liter" soundbyte. Electrical power gets used up at varying rates depending on how you're using it: a source of power that could keep a penlight lit for six hours might only last for a few seconds if you used it to power a vacuum cleaner.
This is not to dismiss the creativity involved in the girls' project, which is novel, creative, and hard-headed enough to put a lot of American schools to shame. ReWire expects great things from these kids in years to come. But those of us who might have briefly hoped that California might have found yet another renewable power source in the more than ten million gallons of urine we produce each day will just have to hold those hopes in a bit longer.