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Carbonised urine could enable cheap fuel cells

Editorial
article image Equally effective carbon compounds can be extracted from urine — making them a cheap stand-in for platinum or synthetic carbon.

CHEAP fuel cells that use carbonised and dried urine as a catalyst in place of platinum could be a reality in the near future.

Fuel cells often use platinum as a catalyst, driving up the cost of the technology. Researchers have been looking at ways to replace the metal with carbon nanostructures, but those are expensive to produce too.

Researchers from the Department of Advanced Materials Chemistry, Korea University demonstrated that equally effective carbon compounds can be extracted from urine — making them a cheap stand-in for platinum or synthetic carbon.

The scientists collected urine samples from healthy individuals, which they heated to evaporate the water contents, leaving behind a dried, yellowish deposit. They then super-heated various test samples of dried urine in a range between 700 and 1,000 degrees Celsius for six hours to carbonise the urine.

The heating process caused salts and other elements to gasify and leave behind carbon. Urine is loaded with other elements besides carbon, which makes the leftover carbon highly porous — ideal for fuel cell catalysts.

Most importantly, the urine carbon was an excellent conductor of electricity, especially the batch that was heated to 1,000 degrees. Researchers said this is the first time carbon was extracted from urine using this simple method.

According to the scientists, roughly 300 to 400 milligrams of urine carbon can be extracted from a single litre of urine, and the ease of harvest means this could very well be a scalable idea.

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