Pee-powered vehicles are finally making a splash

A future of cars powered by electric batteries is inevitable. But what about trucks, ships, and planes? Hydrogen? Possibly.

But there’s another chemical that could be used — and it’s abundant in your pee.

What is ammonia, and why use it to power vehicles? 

Ammonia is a combination of Hydrogen and Nitrogen (NH3), and is one of the few liquid chemical compounds. It rapidly releases energy in combustion and has a high energy density by volume. 

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It also comes with substantial environmental advantages. No carbon (C) in NH3 means that when burnt, ammonia cannot release carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, or other greenhouse pollutants. 

How does ammonia stack up compared to other energy sources?

While electric batteries and hydrogen fuel cells are compelling, ammonia offers higher energy density. This is particularly important for transport that is heavily constrained by weight and volume, such as heavy-duty ground and air transport.

Furthermore, compared with hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, ammonia-powered vehicles are lighter and eschew the problem of disposal that lithium-ion batteries suffer from.

The other advantage of ammonia is that the chemical has been used industrially for over a century. 

Therefore, storage, handling, and delivery infrastructure are already in place globally, making ammonia an optimal fuel for long-haul trucking, locomotives, aviation, and shipping. 

Hang on, ammonia, aren’t you talking about pee? 

Yeah, basically, urine turns into ammonia, which can then be used to produce energy. Up until now though, it’s been strictly academic.

In 2009, research by Dr. Gerardine Botte showed how to use electrolysis to produce hydrogen from human urine at a far cheaper cost than producing hydrogen from water.

In 2017, UK researchers at the University of West England, developed Microbial Fuel Cell (MFC), electrical circuits driven by microbes such as bacteria that feed off urine, creating the potential for robots to refuel themselves. 

They’ve since extended the cells to powering home appliances.

Researchers at the US Army Research Laboratory at Aberdeen Proving Ground are also looking at how they could use urine to power devices in remote locations, as well as in large-scale fuel cells powering vehicles and — theoretically — even entire bases.

If you’re feeling like a bit of citizen science, there are videos on turning urine into garden fertilizer, and even microbial fuel cells

However, while scientists are onboard, we’re yet to see full adoption of ammonia in energy production.

Why haven’t we seen wider adoption of ammonia? 

A lack of technology capable of efficiently extracting ammonia in a constrained space has left it underexplored as an energy carrier.. 

But now technological advancements are reinforcing its viability in larger-scale capabilities. 

Research and industry are making ammonia power a reality