As Lebanon's environmental woes continue to escalate, with mountains of garbage rotting in the street and power cuts lasting up to 18 hours a day, three high school teenagers have taken it upon their shoulders to change the status quo with a generator that runs on urine.
When then-grade nine students Firas Makarem, Badih Salha and Iyad Hariz were assigned an end-of-the-year science project in 2013, they chose to imitate the invention of three Nigerian girls who made headlines with their urine-powered generator.
"The idea of the [assignment] was that they had to use what they learned to solve a current environmental or social problem in their community," said Jinan Shayya, the students' science teacher and project supervisor at the Ras el Maten school just outside Beirut.
"I created a Facebook group for the whole class where I would share scientific news and inventions to give them ideas. They saw this idea as an inexpensive way to solve the electricity problem in their country, especially since urine is a renewable source of energy."
The school was, like many other districts in the area, struggling with power cuts that could last the whole school day, hence the familiar need for a generator.
"We saw that [the project] combined several issues that we deal with here in Lebanon, like electricity and sewage, and the environment," 16-year-old Salha said.
The model changes
The initial model for the project replicated the Nigerian version:
• Urine is put into an electrolytic cell (originally a car battery), which separates the liquid into nitrogen, water and hydrogen.
• The hydrogen goes through a filter for purification and then into a gas cylinder, which looks similar to the kind used for outdoor barbecue grills.
• The gas cylinder pushes the filtered hydrogen into another cylinder that contains liquid borax, in order to remove moisture from the gas. Borax is a natural mineral, commonly used in laundry detergent.
• The hydrogen is pushed into the generator in the final step of the process.
However, things didn't go as planned, as the team quickly discovered that this process was flawed for several reasons.
"The first thing we changed is the usage of borax, a chemical used to [help] dehydrogenize urine. It was not compatible with the project," said Salha.
Another challenge was the battery.
"The battery didn't work because of its acidity," Salha told Wamda. "When you electrolyze using a battery, you don't get pure hydrogen; you get nitrogen and other gases which harm the generator and the electrolysis process. They also affect their efficiency so that the [process] takes a lot more time."
With the help of mechnical engineer Majd Fayyad, who guided them along the way, the team considered three alternatives: performing electrolysis on the urine, substituting the car battery with a less acidic one, or using a fuel other than urine.
"The most feasible and affordable alternative was electrolysis," said Hariz. A basic electrolytic cell (with a cathode, an anode and electrolyte) was introduced to perform electrolysis and separate the hydrogen from the urine. The hydrogen was then sucked into a vacuum gas bottle and driven to the generator.
"We also changed the specific amounts of urine [outlined in the Nigerian experiment]," said Salha. "It was [mentioned] as one liter for six hours of electricity, which is nothing reasonable at all."
The numbers still don't add up
When it comes to numbers, volumes and efficiency, the boys are carving their own path in researching the amount of urine it would take to power various facilities and machines. "There is no research whatsoever on urine electrolysis," said Hariz. "So the one we are doing now is very new."
"We still have a long way to go in researching, so if I give you a number, it will be inaccurate and not credible," said science teacher Shayya when asked about specific amounts. "Currently we are studying what factors can increase the amount of hydrogen produced per a small amount of urine."
The team could only reveal that, during the AUB science fair competition, a half-liter of urine was enough to "power a few bulbs".
Currently, the generator is being actively used to light a small section in the school, as part of the research activity. "We're using the generator to light the kindergarten section, which is comprised of five rooms, each with a number of bulbs and a fan," said Shayya.
In consent with the school administration, the team, headed by Shayya, plans to alter the plumbing system of the school so sewage pipes can be directed towards the generator.
"That way, every student will be indirectly contributing to collect more urine and help himself or herself have more electricity in school."
The team are also aware that their strategy will have "economic benefits, as the school won't have to pay electricity taxes, and that’s a huge benefit", said Hariz.
In 2013, the team won first prize for both the AUB and the Lebanese university science fair. They then applied to Ford's Conservation & Environmental Grants sustainability grants, and received a grant of $12,000, which they plan to use for their research.
"We believe we have a huge market in Lebanon and globally as well," said Salha. "The first step is having a product that will power your electricity at home, and then we can apply it and expand to have a larger market like charging your phone… but our studies of that are not very thorough."
It all depends, according to the team, on the final results of hydrogen efficiency versus urine volume.
Furthermore, they're excited to represent Lebanon at the Energy Global Awards, where, should they win, a prize of 10,000 Euros awaits them.