Tag Archives: urine

Urine, the future material to build new bases at the moon

The Apollo lunar flights ended in 1972 but interest in the moon and the possibility of going back is still going strong. NASA hopes to send astronauts to the lunar South Pole by 2024, working with commercial and international partners.

Credit NASA

Doing so raises many logistical questions, such as the establishment of a base for the astronauts. Sending materials to the moon to build a base can be expensive and difficult, however, so space agencies are investigating new approaches, including the use of urine.

In a new study, researchers have found that urea, the major organic compound found in human urine, could be useful for making concrete for lunar structures. Its use could make them less brittle and more flexible, and resulting in hardier buildings.

“The two main components of urine are water and urea, a molecule that allows the hydrogen bonds to be broken and, therefore, reduces the viscosities of many aqueous mixtures,” said materials scientist Ramón Pamies of the Polytechnic University of Cartagena in Spain.

Pamies and a group of researchers from Norway, Spain, the Netherlands, and Italy conducted a number of experiments testing the use of human urea as a plasticizer. To do so, they used a material developed by the European Space Agency similar to lunar regolith.

They tested this material with urea and with other plasticizers, seeing how much weight it could support. They first tested its resistance after heating the material to 80ºC (176 ºF), followed by repeatedly freezing and thawing it. This was meant to see if the material would endure weather conditions at the moon, where temperatures can vary from 120º C (250º F) during the day to -130°C (-208°F) at night. Any building materials there would have to withstand significant thermal change while still insulating the interior.

Thankfully, the tests showed promising results. The urea that was used as a plasticizer could support heavy weights, remain stable, and keep its shape despite the harsh weather. Nevertheless, there are still challenges ahead before we’ll be able to actually use the urea.

“We have not yet investigated how the urea would be extracted from the urine, as we are assessing whether this would really be necessary, because perhaps its other components could also be used to form the geopolymer concrete,” Anna-Lena Kjøniksen, one of the researchers from the Norwegian university, said in a statement.

The study was published in the Journal of Cleaner Production.

Urine Brick.

Bricks grown from your urine make for greener houses, plumper crops

University of Cape Town (UCT) researchers want to make cheaper fertilizers and greener buildings — using your toilet.

Urine Brick.

(From the left) UCT’s Department of Civil Engineering’s Dr Dyllon Randall and his students, Vukheta Mukhari and Suzanne Lambert, holding the newly-unveiled bio-brick.
Image credits University of Cape Town.

Building materials like concrete, steel, or bricks are quite energy-intensive to produce. Since most of this energy is produced in fossil-fuel plants, it has a sizeable carbon footprint. Emissions associated with fuel use and those released by certain chemical processes during manufacture add to these products’ overall carbon footprint.

But, if you’re looking for a more eco-friendly alternative for all your masonry pursuits…

Urine luck

A team led by Suzanne Lambert, a civil engineering master’s student at the UCT, unveiled the first bio-brick developed from human urine. The material is created through microbial carbonate precipitation, a process similar to that used by marine creatures to build their shells.

It largely involves strengthening sand with chemicals derived from urine. The sand is colonized with bacteria that produce urease (an enzyme that breaks down urea in urine. The resulting calcium carbonate binds the grains of sand together, creating a very solid object in virtually any shape. It has to be mentioned, however, that sand is becoming an increasingly scarce material.

The concept of using urea for bricks isn’t exactly new — it was first tested in the U.S. a few years ago. However, Lambert’s team is the first one to use human urine, not synthetic solutions, for the process. This isn’t the first bio-brick to be developed, nor the first solid brick based on simple materials — but they do come with a wide range of bonuses that make them stand out.

One of the best parts of the new bricks is that they’re fabricated in molds at room temperature. This drastically reduces their emission levels compared to regular bricks. The fabrication process can also be tweaked to address particular needs — lower production times (and thus, costs), or higher-strength.

“If a client wanted a brick stronger than a 40 percent limestone brick, you would allow the bacteria to make the solid stronger by ‘growing’ it for longer,” said Dr. Dyllon Randall, a senior lecturer at UCT and Lambert’s supervisor. “The longer you allow the little bacteria to make the cement, the stronger the product is going to be. We can optimise that process.”

Brick the houses, sow the fields

Bio-bricks could also, surprisingly, help us grow plumper crops. Urine is rich in several chemical compounds that are key ingredients in fertilizers: nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus (we’re running low on virtually every one of those compounds). Chemically speaking, Dr Randall adds, urine is liquid gold. Although it accounts for under 1% of domestic wastewater by volume, it provides 80% of the nitrogen, 63% of the potassium, and 56% of the phosphorus in wastewater. Nitrogen is particularly important from an agricultural point of view.

Most of these compounds can be harvested from wastewater, the team adds. Some 97% of the phosphorus present in urine, for example, can be recovered and used for fertilizers.

Virtually nothing is wasted when producing these bio-bricks, the team writes. The process starts with urine collected from novel fertilizer-producing urinals. Here, it’s used to create a solid fraction (which is basically a fertilizer mix). The liquid fraction is then used to grow the brick themselves.

“In that process, we’re only after two components: carbonate ions and the calcium. What we do last is take the remaining liquid product from the bio-brick process and make a second fertiliser,” Dr Randall explains.

The main hurdle the team has to overcome is logistics — namely the collection and transport of urine to processing facilities. How society reacts to the idea is another hotbed for discussion. Right now, the team is only dealing with urine collection from male urinals “because that’s socially accepted,” says Dr Randall. However, that leaves “half of the population” out of the process, which is a shame.

Still, Dr Randall hopes that their work will help people reconsider their relationship with waste — of any kind.

“In this example you take something that is considered a waste and make multiple products from it. You can use the same process for any waste stream. It’s about rethinking things,” he said.

Pee, Poop, and Perspiration Will Be Useful in Traveling to Mars

People have effectively been able to acquire fuel and, consequently, energy from human urine. This capability has been known for a number of years. In late 2012, a small group of teenage girls from Nigeria made the news by presenting a generator that ran on urine at the Maker Faire Africa. In their generator, the pee is poured into an electrolytic cell where the hydrogen is isolated from other components in the liquid.

The hydrogen is then purified by passing through a filter. From there, it’s sent to a gas cylinder from which it is further pumped into a cylinder containing liquid borax. The borax aids in separating the hydrogen gas from any remaining moisture. The final step is for this gas to be sent to the generator. The girls’ machine was able to supply six hours’ worth of electricity by using a mere liter of liquid waste.

Of course, this was a rather simple apparatus primarily for display, but the important thing is it worked! Urine’s use for producing gas and/or syngas (synthesis gas) has the potential to be quite revolutionary.

Waste as a Water Source in Space


Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Recycling everything possible in extraterrestrial day-to-day life and travel saves both space and money. For a while now, astronauts on the International Space Station have been recycling their own perspiration and pee. The purified output is clean water, which is drunk a second time over. This cycle can be repeated over and over.

You’ve heard of twice-baked potatoes? Well, twice-expelled waste is starting to catch up in its popularity. Human urine and condensate (including breath moisture, human sweat, shower runoff, and animal pee) are all distilled and reverted to clean drinking water. As of 2015, about 6,000 extra liters of water are recycled each year.

Waste Empowering Yeast

One of the molecules which makes up our urine is called urea. Furthermore, urea is composed of nitrogen and carbon. Both of these chemicals are needed to feed a yeast, Yarrowia lipolytica, which when genetically tweaked properly can take a variety of forms such as bioplastics and even fatty acids. One particular fatty acid necessary for human health and functionality is Omega-3. The brain requires this nutrient.

Thus, Yarrowia lipolytica is being tested to hopefully be able to produce Omega-3’s efficiently in the future. This would be a great aid to humanity in the occasion of a manned mission to Mars or elsewhere. In addition, future astronauts will use 3D printers onboard their spacecraft to generate tools and other needed objects made of plastic. Yet again, the yeast can be altered to produce a certain type of polyester which could be employed for this purpose.

Feces and Urine for Future Food

The sheer quantity of food needed to sustain a manned mission to Mars remains a big problem. However, a clever party of researchers from Pennsylvania State University believes to have found an efficiently ingenious answer. The concept was discussed in a paper published in late 2017. Their space-saving device, a bioreactor, uses the urine as well as the feces of astronauts to feed a non-harmful bacteria that, in turn, is capable of sustaining the human space travelers.

Within the bioreactor, the solid and liquid waste become condensed leaving salts and methane gas in its place. It’s the methane which is used to grow the microbial mush, an edible element with a texture similar to that of Vegemite, a thick Australian spread made up of leftover brewers’ yeast extract along with an assortment of additives.

As you have seen, our astronauts’ waste will not be wasted. Scientists will surely engineer more ways for bodily waste to be put to beneficial use.

This IKEA ad might change your life — if you pee on it

A new IKEA advertisement published in Swedish women magazine Amelia continues the store’s long and proud tradition of quirky, if controversial, ads.

So what’s so life-changing about an ad? Urine.

Yes, you read that right — urine. The first page of the magazine asks women to pee inside (on?) it with gusto. But, unbeknownst to the reader, the magazine has a rather creative, if somewhat questionable, surprise for those who follow the instruction. Embedded inside the magazine is a redesigned ELISA pregnancy test that, if positive, displays a reduced price of a crib. Nothing more fascinating than that.


It all started with the brilliant advertising minds from the Swedish ad agency Akestam Holst. Looking for a way to shock Scandinavian women into buying furniture from IKEA, they started a collaboration with Mercene Labs to merge science and marketing. Thus, the uncommon pregnancy test was “born”.

How does it actually work?

ELISA stands for enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay. All those fancy words translate to a simpler concept: a test which changes color in the presence of certain antibodies used to identify a substance. In our case, the sought-after substance is a hormone: human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG).

HCG is produced by the placenta after an embryo’s implantation in the uterine wall. It’s the most common hormone used for early-stage pregnancy tests.

A little less known fact is that hCG is also synthesized by some cancerous tumors, and taking a fun, random pregnancy test that turns out positive might actually lead to cancer diagnosis. The agency, in this unintentional way, might even save some lives with their ad.

This is not the first time IKEA came up with controversial ads. In a 2013 Thailand TV commercial, a couple is portrayed going shopping at an IKEA store. When the girl sees the low prices, she suddenly drops her voice a few octaves.


The Thai Transgender Alliance was offended and said the ad was “a gross violation of human rights”.

Another disastrous IKEA campaign was released back in 2012 when all the women from the Saudi Arabia catalog were photoshopped out of the pictures.

But unlike those mishaps, this is actually an insightful and creative way of promoting products.

Wash hands sign.

Waste not, want not: astronauts to turn pee into nutrients, tools on deep-space missions

Astronauts heading out to Mars or other corners of deep space will need systems capable of producing critical nutrients and materials on-route while keeping their craft’s weight as low as possible. One team of researchers is looking to down two birds with one stone by using yeast to turn astronaut’s urine and carbon dioxide into plastic mass and omega-3 fatty acid.

Wash hands sign.

Image credits Amanda Mills.

You can’t stuff a spaceship with everything astronauts will possibly need for a journey because every bit of extra weight translates to a large increase in the fuel required to get to space. Which begs the question: what happens if a crew member loses a bit of kit or a tool while working outside of the spaceship? How will they get a replacement? Well, one way to do it is to have some sort of production system on-hand to be used in such cases — and we have 3-D printing that. 

As for the raw materials, scientists are increasingly turning to the astronauts themselves, who will generate constant material, in the form of waste, by simply eating or breathing. And the researchers are letting nothing go to waste.

Liquid assets

“If astronauts are going to make journeys that span several years, we’ll need to find a way to reuse and recycle everything they bring with them,” says Clemson Univeristy Ph.D Mark A. Blenner, lead author of a study looking to turn waste CO2 and urine into a usable resource.

“Atom economy will become really important.”

Here on Earth, we can play fast and loose with matter, since we’ve got plenty lying around. But in space, every molecule of usable material comes at a premium and we simply can’t afford to discard it. Towards that end, he and his team are working on turning astronaut-waste into things the crew actually need, such as plastic mass for 3D printing and vital nutrients.

These last ones in particular are tricky. Some vital nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids, can’t be stored for more than a few years before they degrade. Since any meaningful expedition will take more than that limited shelf life, we’ll need to produce such nutrients on-route a few years after launch and after the ship reaches its destination.

The team developed a biological system that relies on several strains of the yeast Yarrowia lipolytica which can be loaded in a dormant state and awakened when the crew needs to start producing material or nutrients. Y. lipolytica need nitrogen and carbon to grow, both of which are luckily in supply from the astronauts themselves. Blenne’s team showed that the yeast can feed on nitrogen contained in urine without any extra processing. For CO2, it’s a bit more complicated. It’s abundant in astronauts’ exhaled breath (or the atmosphere on Mars) and needs to be scrubbed out of the air anyhow or it becomes toxic, but the yeast can’t use it as-is in its gaseous form. To address that issue, the team is relying on photosynthetic algae known as cyanobacteria to fix the carbon dioxide into a form Y. lipolytica can absorb.

Solid gains

One of the strains of Y. lipolytica will churn out omega-3 fatty acids for the crew, which plays a key role in maintaining the brain, heart, and eyes in good health. Another strain of the yeast was engineered to biosynthesize monomers and link them together to form polymers — plastic mass. These polymers can then be run through a 3D printer so the crew can create spare parts, tools, or any other object they need on the journey.

Currently, both strains only produce a small quantity of both polymer or omega-3, but the team is working on increasing yields. They’re also trying to make new strains that can produce other types of monomers with different physical properties, so future crews have access to a wider range of materials to better address any need.

But the work Blenner’s team is performing isn’t only for outer space — the omega-3 strain is just as useful for nutrition down here, and will be a particular boon to the aquaculture industry. Seafood raised in fish farms need omega-3 supplements, which in a particular twist of irony we’re currently producing from wild seafood and then feeding it to our fishy crops. Blenner’s yeast could solve that issue and finally allow ocean ecosystems some respite from fishing.

Overall, the research is also furthering our knowledge of yeast behavior in general and Y. lipolytica in particular. Although it is a yeast, it’s not very well studied and differs quite a bit from more mainstream strains of yeast, such as those used in alcoholic fermentation.

“We’re learning that Y. lipolytica is quite a bit different than other yeast in their genetics and biochemical nature,” Blenner says. “Every new organism has some amount of quirkiness that you have to focus on and understand better.”

The team presented their paper “Biosynthesis of materials and nutraceuticals from astronaut waste: Towards closing the loop” at the 254th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) in Washington, which will last through Thursday.

Fish urine keeps corals healthy, but we’re taking all the fish out of the water

Coral reefs may be feeling the effects of overfishing much more severely than we previously thought, a new study suggests. The team found that fish urine is critical to maintaining coral healthy and well fed, while a dwindling fish population might spell doom for a reef environment.

Hey can I get some privacy in here?!
Image credits Dr. Avishai Teicher / PikiWiki

Coral aren’t that good at searching for food, seeing as they’re completely immobile. So they do the next best thing and filter the waters around them, waiting for all the nutrients they need to come to them. But researchers recently found that one very important nutrient source of corals that’s having a hard time coping with human activity — the fish that live in coral reefs.

“Part of the reason coral reefs work is because animals play a big role in moving nutrients around,” Jacob Allgeier, an ecologist at the University of Washington, said in a statement.

“Fish hold a large proportion, if not most, of the nutrients in a coral reef in their tissue, and they’re also in charge of recycling them. If you take the big fish out, you’re removing all of those nutrients from the ecosystem.”

“Moving nutrients around” is a nicer way of saying that the corals feed on fish pee. It’s a mutually-beneficial arrangement. Large bodied fish in the Caribbean use the reef for shelter during the day and as hunting grounds by night. They naturally excrete ammonium through their gills, which is an essential nutrient for coral growth. And their urine contains phosphorus, another key nutrient.

But to find out exactly how important fish were in the nutrient balance of a reef ecosystem, Dr. Allgeier led a team of researchers to survey nearly 150 fish species at 43 different Caribbean coral reefs. Each site had felt the effects of fishing differently, with some left untouched while others were completely decimated. The researchers found that in reefs where predatory fish thrived, the corals showed signs of having a bountiful diet. Reefs with fewer fish lacked necessary nutrients by as much as 50 percent.

“Simply stated, fish biomass in coral reefs is being reduced by fishing pressure. If biomass is shrinking, there are fewer fish to pee,” Allgeier said in a statement.

The findings will help us better understand how different ways fishing affect coral reef ecosystems, Allgeier said, so we can devise more efficient conservation practices.

The full paper, “Fishing down nutrients on coral reefs” has been published online in the journal Nature.

One of the oldest known New Testament copies could have been written in pee-based ink

Restoration experts have identified the materials that went into making the purple dye of the Codex Purpureus Rossanensis, one of the oldest known New Testament manuscripts, and they aren’t exactly ecclesial: the ink was made from a combination of lichens and fermented urine.

The debate over exactly how the ancient bookmakers, most likely hailing from today’s Syria, crafted the amazing book using the simple tools and limited resources available to them 1,500 years ago has been ever since the manuscript was found.

The beginning of the gospel of Mark in the codex.
Image via wikimedia

“Even though early medieval illuminated manuscripts have been deeply studied from the historical standpoint, they have been rarely fully described in their material composition,” lab director Marina Bicchieri, from the Central Institute for Restoration and Conservation of Archival and Library Heritage (ICRCPAL) in Rome, told Discovery News.

The strikingly beautiful book is usually housed in the Museum of the Diocese in Rossano, a town in southern Italy. The work is 188 pages long, containing the gospels of Matthew and Mark written down in gold and silver ink. Its exact history is unknown, but it’s believed that Italian monks brought the manuscript from Syria. It was re-discovered in 1879 in the Cathedral of Rossano, and since then the debate over how it was written rages on.

Sadly, much of the book has been lost over time, and the book is extremely fragile. Most of it was destroyed in a fire inside the cathedral, and Bicchieri’s team also had to deal with the damage left by earlier restoration efforts. These conducted by an unnamed team around 1917 and irreversibly modified some of the pages.

“Most likely, what we have today represents half of the original book,” museum officials suggest.

The discovery of the purple ink’s materials was made during the book’s restoration by the ICRCPAL. Aiming not to further damage the work, the team only mended a few of its stitches to keep it from falling apart, then used X-rays to examine the composition of the inks in the codex. They compared their findings with dyes recreated in the lab using recipes found in the Stockholm papyrus – a Greek ink recipe book that’s been dated to around 300 AD.

The team reports that the purple dye, thought to have been made out of Murex (a species of sea snail,) was actually produced with orcein, a dye extracted from the lichen Roccella Tinctoria, and sodium carbonate. The latter was obtained from natron — a salt-like material used to mummify bodies in ancient Egypt, Lorenzi explains. But, to bring out the best shade of purple, the dye-making process seems to have involved using fermented urine to mix the compounds.

The pages are dyed with the purple ink.

The pages are dyed with the purple ink.


“Fibre optics reflectance spectra (FORS) showed a perfect match between the purple parchment of the codex and a dye obtained with orcein and an addition of sodium carbonate,” Bicchieri told Rosella Lorenzi at Discovery News.

To you and me this might seem pretty….gross. But in the day it was actually a very practical choice, as urine was the only readily available source of ammonia available 1,500 years ago.

The team is still preparing their findings for publication, and have yet to pass the test of peer-review — but once they do, they could finally end the century long debate around the purple ink.

urine test

Cheap home urine test scans for diseases

urine test

Credit: YouTube

Stanford University researchers have developed a new low-cost tech that diagnoses diseases from a simple urine sample. The setup is made of a plastic-based lab-on-chip that does the actual chemical analysis and a frame where a dipstick and mobile phone can be placed. The latter is where the user gets his test results back, all from the comfort of his home.

Not your regular ‘toaster’

The urinary dipstick has been one of doctors’ most trusted assets for at least 60 years, used to determine pathological changes in a patient’s urine.This simple, yet powerful test consists of a paper strip with 10 square pads which change colour based on chemical markers. Based on how the paper pads change colour, you can measure levels of glucose, blood, protein and other chemicals, then deduce what kind of disease, if any, the patient is suffering from. These can be faulty, though, and most of the time serve only as a preliminary test before a barrage of “more serious” lab examinations.

“You think it’s easy – you just dip the stick in urine and look for the color change, but there are things that can go wrong,” said Audrey (Ellerbee) Bowden, assistant professor of electrical engineering at Stanford. “Doctors don’t end up trusting those results as accurate.”

The goal of the Stanford researchers was to democratize the dipstick and create a tech that can analyze urine samples from anywhere — all accurately enough to be trusted by doctors who remotely receive the patient’s report.

Because the dipstick needs consistent lighting conditions, the researchers first started with a black box made out of interlocking parts. This makes it easy to assemble and transport.

Next, a volume-control system was made to load the urine into the dipstick without having to worry if there’s too little or too much of it. A dropper is used to squeeze urine into the first compartment, which fills the channel in the second layer and the ten square holes in the third layer.

Finally, a smartphone is placed over an opening above the dipstick. The phone’s camera controlled via a custom software then focuses on each coloured pad. In the future, the team hopes to develop a custom app that not only analyzes each pad but automatically sends a report to the patient’s doctor.

Now, this sort of cheap device won’t replace lab tests, but it should drastically cut down man-hours and lab procedures. It might also uncover a disease earlier since people are more comfortable making the test at home instead of going to a hospital.

“[…] it is going to make diagnoses of current diseases more accurate in the hands of users,” said co-researcher Gennifer Smith, a Ph.D. student in the department of electrical engineering.

“There are definitely other aspects of urinalysis that we are investigating. There are extensions of the technology that can move more towards making this a full replacement of lab tests. We are thinking about that,” she added.

“It’s such a hassle to go into the doctor’s office for such a simple test,” said Smith. “This device can remove the burden in developed countries and in facilities where they don’t have the resources to do these tests.”

Scientists have figured out why bearcats smell like buttered popcorn

Researchers have finally answered one of the most pressing questions in modern science: why bearcats smell like buttered popcorn (hint: it’s the urine).

Photo by TassiloRau.

When nature employs smell, they’re either really nice or really bad, and it happens for a good reason: to lure things or to repel them away. But for bearcats, it’s quite a peculiar case, as their smell is rather… intriguing.

A joint team from several universities gave 33 bearcats routine physical examinations at the Carolina Tiger Rescue, a wildlife sanctuary in North Carolina. They took samples from the animals, including urine samples. The urine was analyzed with gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, an instrumental technique through which complex mixtures of chemicals may be separated, identified and quantified.

They distinguished 29 compounds, and one of these compounds was 2-acetyl-1-pyrroline (2-AP) – the very same chemical that gives buttered popcorn its unique smell. Just to make it clear, it’s not something that smells the same as buttered popcorn – it’s the same thing as buttered popcorn!

Researchers are not really sure how this happens without the very hot temperatures, but they have a hunch it could be caused by the bacteria the mammals have on their fur. As to why they’re doing this… it’s anyone’s guess.

Bearcats are mammals native to South and Southeast Asia. They spend most of their time in the foothills and hills with good tree cover. So if you find yourself in that area and feel a sudden smell of buttered popcorn… you’re probably surrounded by urine. I love nature.


When nature calls in outer space: here’s how astronauts use the toilet

A few days ago, we were telling you about the espresso machine 3D printed onboard the International Space Station. Now, it’s time to go full circle and look at how the coffee… gets out of the body. Here’s how astronauts use the toilet (yes, in case you’re wondering, this is suitable for viewing at work):

Above, we see Samantha Cristoforetti, an Italian astronaut, explaining how urinating happens in outer space – which in zero gravity, is quite a challenge. Basically, they go into the rubber hose that uses suction to collect urine so that it doesn’t float all around. After that, everything is transported to the urine processing assembly (UPA) and it is recycled into drinkable water.

Recycling it is critical to keeping a clean environment for astronauts, and when onboard water supplies run low, treated urine can become a source of essential drinking water.

But if we go even deeper into the urine processing (heh), we learn that it uses a low pressure vacuum distillation process that uses a centrifuge to compensate for the lack of gravity and thus aid in separating liquids and gasses. It can handle a load of 9 kg/day, corresponding to the needs of a 6-person crew. About 70% of the urine’s water content can be recovered as drinking water. Of course, water is tested by the onboard sensors and unacceptable water is sent back for refiltering.

In outer space, pretty much everything is complicated – so enjoy and appreciate your comfy home toilet.

Hamburg hydrophobic walls

Hamburg deters public urination by lining walls with hydrophobic spray

When man piss in wind, wind piss back, a modern Confucius states. In this line, the city of Hamburg ingeniously sought to address its growing public urination problem in the city’s busy party center by painting walls with hydrophobic paint. Next time an unsuspecting person wants to take a load off in Hamburg’s St. Pauli neighborhood, he might be in for a surprise – it’ll splash back at him.

Hamburg hydrophobic walls

GIF: YouTube

It’s unclear to me at the moment if the city counsel actually expects some practical results or if this is all a marketing gimmick intended on raising awareness. Even so, it’s an inventive way to address public urination. The video above documenting Hamburg’s initiative was produced by community group IG St Pauli. Unfortunately, it’s in German but it’s suggestive enough.


San Francisco experiments with planter-based public pee stations

San Francisco, for the nice and laid back city that it is, has many problems – and I was pretty surprised to hear that public urination is one of them. Now, they’ve come up with a solution that could not only solve this problem, but also green up the city. PPlanter is a smart and ecologically sensitive public urinal that conserves water while prettying up things with bamboo.

We’ve all had our ‘nature calls’ moments when walking down the street, but there’s always a local restaurant or Starbucks or public restroom which can help ease your problem; but apparently, in San Francisco, as public officials explain, public restrooms are best avoided as they’ve been “hijacked by junkies and sex workers.”

To work around this issue in an efficient and eco-friendly fashion, Brent Bucknum of Oakland-based Hyphae Design Laboratory has developed a chemical-free public urinal-garden hybrid dubbed PPlanter. He describes it:

“PPlanter is a rapidly deployable, reconfigurable public urinal and sink that uses modular biofilters to treat urine and wastewater. The network of sensors for automated monitoring and this web site are an integral part for public feedback and participation in the design of future iterations.”
The PPlanter works for both males and females, and it conveniently takes up a single parking space. It doesn’t offer much in the way of privacy (just a modesty screen) – but that’s sort of the point. You can’t do anything illegal or promiscuous there, because everyone could see it. I know some Americans will be really turned off by this prospect, but as a European… we do this all the time, and it works just fine. So how does it work, exactly?
Well, basically, you urinate into a ceramic bowl (disposable funnels are provided for ladies). Then, you operate a pump with your foot (basically just push a pedal), and it gives you clean, fresh water, from a reservoir, with which you wash your hands. That soapy water is then used to flush the urine down, and from then, things get a little more technical:
“The greywater, soap and urine (blackwater) from the ADA-compliant urinal are funneled to a sealed storage tank. The combined water is then pumped into an adjacent planter that houses bamboo plants set in a lightweight mixture of soil and recycled styrofoam coated in pectin. The water from the urinal and sink is evapotranspired by the bamboo and released into the air as distilled, purified water. The bamboo harnesses the incredible amount of nitrogen and phosphorus found in the urine and uses it to produce more bamboo. With high traffic urinals additional planters can be added to the system.”
Personally, I’m not sure what to think about this – it’s a good idea, and it offers a small bonus in the greening and all… but will people actually like this ? I’m really curious… but only time will tell.
What about you? Does this look like a good idea to you? Will it help solve San Francisco’s urine problem?
Pictures via PPlanter.

Waterless Urinals: Saving Water And Money From Going Down the Drain

More than 160 billion gallons of water are flushed down the drains each year due to urinal usage. That’s as much as 700 liters per urinal per day! A switch to waterless urinals can pay for itself in as little as one year and even more quickly in municipalities that offer rebates for their installation. Such economic advantage is enough to make the change seem an obvious choice. There are, however, many additional advantages to using a waterless version of urinals in place of their conventional counterparts.

Health & Hygiene
Despite the long-standing association between a flush of water and the freshening of urinals, eliminating the need for water actually allows these urinals to have fewer odors and makes them easier to clean. With a sealed waste water outlet, waterless urinals prevent the possible escape of the unpleasant odors that can arise from sewer lines. They also eliminate the need for a flush handle, a common means for spreading bacteria to hands.

Waterless urinals support less bacterial growth than conventional urinals: without moisture, bacteria simply can’t thrive. Urine leaving the body is normally sterile and does not support bacterial growth until it is exposed to air and water in urinals and toilets. In a waterless urinal, a streamlined design directs moisture to the urinal trap. This minimizes air exposure and pooling of urine, which keeps both the urinal, and the air around it, fresher. Special odor-eating components that can be included in the urine trap reduce the scent of any stray urine.

How it works
waterless_urinalsRather than depending on a flush of water, these urinals allow urine to enter the waste water system through one-way or liquid sealed valves. The one-way valves open only when urine flows over them. Some even include a kind of self-cleaning property due to small pressure differences that ‘flush’ the valve clean with each use. Liquid sealed values allow urine to seep through the oil blocking the outlet, making use of the difference in densities between the two fluids.

Due to fewer parts and simpler operation, waterless versions require less maintenance than conventional urinals. With few parts to repair or replace, reduced maintenance costs further increase the economic advantage of going waterless. The only attention they require is replacement of the liquid sealants after every 1500 uses, or approximately two to five times per year. Some designs require simply adding more oil. This may take the form of simple cooking oil or, in other cases, oils specially crafted for use in these urinals. Other designs include sealant cartridges that can be returned to the manufacturer for recycling. Cleaning involves simply wiping the bowl with an all-purpose cleaner as needed.

How it looks
Waterless urinals are designed to be compatible with existing urinal infrastructure, further facilitating the transition to the new designs. Their appearance can be quite similar to the old familiar forms with the notable lack of flush handle and no need to attach to a water inlet pipe. Just as with any toilet fixture, a full range of designs (and prices) is available that can be installed in both public buildings and private residences.

Why it matters
Conservation of fresh water is an important part of environmental protection. For the safety of both humans and the planet, reducing the amount of potentially potable water that is used for purposes other than drinking and bathing presents an important means for proper use of the Earth’s resources. Much attention has been focused on developing low-flow toilets and shower heads to meet the demand for fresh water. Waterless urinals are the shining-stars in this endeavor as they are no-flow!

Such strives in environmental and economic conservation has nabbed the attention of some government agencies. Since 2010, all new U.S. military facilities have used only urinals with a waterless design. The San Diego Public School system made the switch in 1997 and many more large public spaces have followed suit since then.

Urinal design has come a long way since the first “upright flushing apparatus” of 1866. The plethora of advantages now offered by waterless urinals makes it worth the switch and an essential component to future building projects.

New Urine Test Could Diagnose Eye Disease

Urine isn’t exactly the first place you want to start looking for eye diseases – but according to a new Duke University study a patient’s urine can be linked to gene mutations that cause Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP), an inherited, degenerative disease that results in severe vision impairment and often blindness.

A composite image of the human retina shows diffused pigmentary retinal degeneration. Photo credit – Ziqiang Guan, Duke University Medical Center

A composite image of the human retina shows diffused pigmentary retinal degeneration. Photo credit – Ziqiang Guan, Duke University Medical Center

“My collaborators, Dr. Rong Wen and Dr. Byron Lam at the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute in Florida first sought my expertise in mass spectrometry to analyze cells cultured from a family in which three out of the four siblings suffer from RP,” said Ziqiang Guan, an associate research professor of biochemistry in the Duke University Medical School and a contributing author of the study.

The team had previously sequenced the genome of this family and found that children with RP carry two copies of a mutation of a gene responsible for synthesizing organic compounds called dolichols. This mutation appears to be prevalent in RP patients of the Ashkenazi Jewish origin (the people who are most suffering from the disease), and some 0.3% of all Ashkenazi carry one copy of the mutation.

They think that urine makes for better testing than blood in this case.

“Since the urine samples gave us more distinct profiles than the blood samples, we think that urine is a better clinical material for dolichol profiling,” he said. Urine collection is also easier than a blood draw and the samples can be conveniently stored with a preservative. The team is now pursuing a patent for this newl diagnostic test for the DHDDS mutation.

There are currently no treatments for RP, but Guan hopes that developing this urine-based test will also provide insight on how this ailment could be treated.

“We are now researching ways to manipulate the dolichol synthesis pathway in RP patients with the DHDDS mutation so that the mutated enzyme can still produce enough dolichol-19, which we believe may be important for the rapid renewal of retinal tissue in a healthy individual.”

Medical breakthrough: chemical composition of human urine determined



It may come as a shock to you to find out that the chemical make-up of human urine hasn’t been identified until now – but it shouldn’t. The study which led to this breakthrough took over seven years and involved 20 researchers; in the end, it revealed over 3.000 metabolites (small molecules resulted through metabolism). The results are expected to make a big mark in medical, nutritional and environmental testing.

The complexity of human urine took even scientist by surprize.

“Urine is an incredibly complex biofluid. We had no idea there could be so many different compounds going into our toilets,” noted David Wishart, the senior scientist on the project.

The techniques used in the study included nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, gas chromatography, mass spectrometry and liquid chromatography, with the purpose being not only the identification (the ‘what’) of substances in urine, but also the quantification (the ‘how much’). They also used computer-based data mining techniques to scour more than 100 years of published scientific literature about human urine, and if you’re passionate about this subject or it has scientific interest to you, you can check their collected data base for free, online, at the Urine Metabolome Database, or UMDB. The Urine Metabolome database is a freely available electronic database containing detailed information about ~3100 small molecule metabolites found in human urine along with ~3900 concentration values. Each metabolite entry contains more than 110 data fields and many of them are hyperlinked to other databases; basically, it’s like IMDB for urine.

As one can easily guess, the chemical composition of urine is of huge interest to doctors, nutritionists, and even environmental scientists, because it offers valuable information not only about someone’s health, but also about what they’ve been eating, drinking, smoking, etc. As a matter of fact, up until the 1800s, urine’s taste and smell were the primary method for physicians to diagnose disease.

“While the human genome project certainly continues to capture most of the world’s attention, I believe that these studies on the human metabolome are already having a far more significant and immediate impact on human health.”, he added.

Now, with this complete list, we can probably expect numerous advancements and related studies in the field – especially as they have taken the correct and laudable path of sharing their results for free.

“Most medical textbooks only list 50 to 100 chemicals in urine, and most common clinical urine tests only measure six to seven compounds,” said Wishart. “Expanding the list of known chemicals in urine by a factor of 30 and improving the technology so that we can detect hundreds of urine chemicals at a time could be a real game-changer for medical testing.”

Still, it’s quite possible that even this (though extremely thorough and useful) database is not exhaustive.

“This is certainly not the final word on the chemical composition of urine,” Wishart said. “As new techniques are developed and as more sensitive instruments are produced, I am sure that hundreds more urinary compounds will be identified. In fact, new compounds are being added to the UMDB almost every day.

Journal Reference: Souhaila Bouatra, Farid Aziat, Rupasri Mandal, An Chi Guo, Michael R. Wilson, Craig Knox, Trent C. Bjorndahl, Ramanarayan Krishnamurthy, Fozia Saleem, Philip Liu, Zerihun T. Dame, Jenna Poelzer, Jessica Huynh, Faizath S. Yallou, Nick Psychogios, Edison Dong, Ralf Bogumil, Cornelia Roehring, David S. Wishart. The Human Urine Metabolome. PLoS ONE, 2013; 8 (9): e73076 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0073076

Chinese soft-shelled turtle

Chinese turtle is unique in the animal kingdom: it urinates through its mouth

We’ve written about some bizarre animals in the past, but just when you think nothing can come as a surprise… well, meet the Chinese soft-shelled turtle, an animal that has an unique ability, never before encountered in the animal kingdom – it can urinate through its mouth.

Chinese soft-shelled turtle

Never mind man-bear-pig, here’s a turtle that makes a run at the platypus itself.

This is definitely not your typical turtle, even its appearance warns that there’s something really special about it; just look at it – it has a pig snout, on top of a fish’s head, and eyes that I can’t really trace right now to something familiar. Even as an embryo, this turtle is one special animal, as it moves towards the warmest part of the egg, without any developed limbs. Locals mind little of the fact that it urinates through its mouth, and if the turtle can’t be found through South Asian rain forests, rest assured it’s on the menu of most restaurants in the area.

The turtle’s linings in its mouth are covered with tiny protrusions, which allow it to breath underwater for long periods of time by increasing the surface area over which oxygen and carbon dioxide can be exchanged. Some researchers believe that this treat was evolved simply to allow the turtles to urinate under water, and that’s not to say that the turtle doesn’t have any other urea exit options. It still has a cloaca, where urine would normally exit the body.

Scientists weren’t sure about the turtle’s unique ability until it was put to the test.  Alex Yuen Kwong Ip, along with colleague  Shit Fun Chew, of the National University of Singapore introduced four turtles in water tanks for six days. A tube was attached to each turtle’s cloaca for unique collection. The scientists found that only about 6% of the total urea came out the cloaca, the rest came out through its mouth directly in the water tank. Alright, maybe the soft-shelled turtle is simply evolutionary constrained to urinate through its mouth when under water, considering the same exit or entrance, whichever you prefer, is used for breathing as well. So the researchers tried a land test. When a bucket of water was put in front of the turtles, on land, they plunged their heads in for between 20 and 100 minutes. During this time they held water in their mouths for a while, then simply spitted out – urea concentration evidently rose in the buckets’ water. At this point, as I’m writing this, I can’t help but reminisce of what’s maybe the most twisted and vile South Park episode.

“I know of no other animals that can excrete urea through the mouth,” says Ip.

Neither do I, but apparently this isn’t a simple cruel joke played by nature. Analysis has shown that urinating through an oral route is 15 to 50 times more faster than going past the kidney. The researchers also believe oral urination helped  turtles colonise brackish waters. To excrete urea through their cloaca via their kidneys, the turtles would need to drink a lot of water to flush it through, so oral urination came in handy.

ZME readers, what other bizarre animals do you know? 

The findings on the Chinese soft-shelled turtle were described in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

via New Scientist


Nothing goes to waste: urine as a new source of renewable energy

Urine –> Fuel Cells –> Electricity and Water. Don’t you just love science?

And no, I’m not taking the piss.

Urine, a very versatile waste among other things, has been found useful in all sorts of fields, from curing jellyfish stings, to saving ones life in the desert by soiling a turban to cool the head, or more commonly used as a fertilizer. Most of us, however, just dump it in a toilet bowl and flush. What a waste to waste, apparently, since a group of scientists from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, UK have developed a prototype which can turn urine into energy called the Carbamide Power System. The prototype has been developed by Dr Shanwen Tao and his research partner Dr Rong Lan, who’ve received a £130,000 EPSRC grant to develop it

I’m a nutshell this works thanks to very cheap fuel cells which convert chemical energy into electricity through an electrochemical process that does not require combustion, with heat as the by-product. Traditional fuel cells usually involve hydrogen or methanol at one side and oxygen or air at the other, separated by a specialized ionic-conducting membrane. Cost/efficiency is a real issue however since the membrane fuel cells catalysts needed for storing hidrogen or methanol is extremely expensive to manufacture and very dangerous to transport or store.

The Carbamide Power System utilities a far cheaper full cell system, though, one that runs on urea, or carbamide, a mass manufactured fertilizer, which can also be found in human or animal urine. Urine contains roughly 2 per cent urea, and each urea molecule contains four hydrogen atoms, which, crucially, are less tightly bound to the molecule than the hydrogen in water.

The Carbamide Power System scheme. (c) New Scientist

Now, you can imagine that the actual electrical power capabilities of this new technology are very limited, seeing how a liter of urine can barely power a light bulb, but what about an office building with 200-300 people or a whole apartment complex? Mainstream applications can be difficult to implement, but why not use it in the farming industry? Farms deal with hundreds of tons of waste every month, so here’s a chance to transform the animal urine into energy that might eventually power the whole farm. Isolated regions, like for say a military sub, would probably have the most to benefit from this.

Urea solutions are already in use in Europe for heavy goods trucks under UE law to lower the toxic nitrogen oxides produced when diesel combusts. More than 6000 petrol stations and other outlets across Europe sell 32.5 per cent urea solutions under the trade name AdBlue. Actually according to Dr. Tao, a regular adult human produces enough urine each year to drive a car 2700 kilometers on energy from the urea it contains.

“The infrastructure is already there, and the cost is only around 40 pence a litre,” says Dr. Tao. If you had a car powered by a urea fuel cell, “you could just go to a normal petrol station, pump in urea and drive away”, he says.

“Growing up in rural eastern China I was aware of the use of urea as an agricultural fertiliser. When I became a chemist and was looking at fuel cell development I thought of using it in the process.

“We are only at prototype stage at present, but if this renewable material can be used as a commercially viable and environmentally friendly energy source then we will be absolutely delighted, and many people around the world will benefit.”

via New Scientist

Ultimate recycling: urine for water

water recovery systemThis is not for the average man, but when you’re more than 300 km above the Earth, it’s pretty hard to get a glass of water. The estimated cost to transport a pint would be about 15 000$ which is well, astronomical to say the least. So finding a way to recapture every drop of water was vital for scientists.

Astronauts from the International Space Station have to recapture water that evaporates from showers, brushing their teeth, washing and transpiration. Still, this is the first time that NASA considered this potential source of water; of course, I’m talking about urine.

This is where Water Recovery System goes in. With the help of scientists from the Michigan Technological University, they are now able to transform pee into water as clean as you’ll ever find. David Hand was the leader of the project. He says that in this system, urine is distillated and then joins the rest of the fluids in the water processor.

“What’s left over in the water are a few non adsorbing organics and solvents, like nail polish remover, and they go into a reactor that breaks them all down to carbon dioxide, water and a few ions”.

After that they do a microbe check and it’s good to drink