How Pee Can Change the World

  • By Anna Rothschild
  • Posted 09.17.15
  • NOVA

We can use urine to make medicines, power cell phones, and create “pee-cycled” water. Find out more in this episode of Gross Science.

 
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Running Time: 03:09

Transcript

How Pee Can Change the World

Posted: September 17, 2015

What can you do with old pee? According to scientists, quite a lot.

I’m Anna Rothschild, and this is Gross Science.

So, the idea of recycling pee is nothing new. To get a pearly white smile, ancient Romans used to soak their teeth in it, and early Europeans used it to clean their clothes. Thankfully most people are no longer walking around in dried urine, but today, scientists are unlocking the potential of pee and discovering that it’s really nothing to turn up your nose at.

For example, scientists can actually make medicines using chemicals extracted from pee. Back in the 1950s, a doctor named Bruno Lunenfeld realized that when women enter menopause, they naturally release high levels of fertility hormones in an effort to get rid of any eggs they might have left. Lunenfeld wanted to see if these hormones could be extracted from urine, but to do that, he needed gallons and gallons of pee from older women. So where did he turn? To convents! Lunenfeld collected pee from about 300 nuns and used it to extract human urinary menopausal gonadotropin, or hMG for short, which is still used in fertility drugs today.

And that’s not all. Pee is powerful stuff. …literally. You can actually use it to generate electricity. Certain kinds of bacteria feast on the nutrients in urine. The bacteria in turn produce electrons, which flow into an electrode, creating a current that can power cell phones or lights in remote locations like refugee camps. Pee-powered electricity is still being tested, but the technology is promising and offers a way to keep the lights on using a truly renewable power source.

Perhaps the most important and widespread use of pee is as a source of water. For example, since water is heavy and difficult to transport to space, astronauts on the International Space Station extract it from their urine. The “pee-cycled” water on the ISS is not only drinkable, it’s actually purer than the water that comes out of your faucet at home.

And speaking of which, your tap water might already contain some recycled urine. In drought-stricken parts of the country, like California and Texas, urine gets purified and filtered back into the water system. Wastewater recycling systems are already in place in Israel and Singapore and they could be coming to your town as an increasing number of locales face water shortages.

Americans produce 32 billion gallons of sewage every single day and a lot of that is pee. With all that urine, we could be creating a ton of water, medicine, and energy for those in need. So keep peeing people. For the good of humanity, keep peeing.

Ew.

Credits

PRODUCTION CREDITS

Host, Editor, Animator
Anna Rothschild
Writer
Christina Couch
DP, sound
Sam Stulin
Applied Sunblock A
Music Provided by APM
Special thanks to Dr. Ioannis Ieropoulos and the Orange County Water District.

IMAGES AND VIDEO

Mobile phone runs on urine power - Bristol Robotics Laboratory
Courtesy University of the West of England (UWE), Bristol
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4LTprRQTKAw
Orange County’s Groundwater Replenishment System
Jim Kutzle, Orange County Water District
Microfiltration Basin
Orange County Water District
Reverse Osmosis trains of the Groundwater Replenishment System
Steve Crise, courtesy of American Water Works Association (AWWA)
Crystal-clear purified water from the Groundwater Replenishment System is piped to OCWD’s percolation ponds in Anaheim, California
Mark Greening, Orange County Water District
MF Cell
Steve Crise, courtesy of the American Water Works Association (AWWA)
Woman Teeth
iStock/Kurhan
Clothesline
iStock/TheCrimsonMonkey
Filling glass with tap water
iStock/vitapix
Elvis Presley Jailhouse Rock
Wikimedia Commons/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes Movie Trailer Screenshot (34)
Wikimedia Commons/Mddlpps
Nuns clamming -Toni Frissell LC-F9-04-57090012-17
Wikimedia Commons/Toni Frissell
Portrait de Dante
Wikimedia Commons/Sandro Botticelli
Sputnik 191378-full
Wikimedia Commons/NASA
Symptoms of menopause (raster)
Wikimedia Commons/Mikael Häggström
Toilet on the ISS
NASA

SFX

Cockroaches
Freesound/StateAardvark­
(used with permission from author)
Squeak Pack/squeak_10
Freesound/Corsica_S
Wink
Freesound/Bennychico_11
cough cough sniff sniff
Freesound/harrypeeks
light-1
Freesound/tictacshutup
Peeing
Freesound/Safadancer
Produced by WGBH for PBS Digital Studios

Sources

Want more info?

From Gunpowder to Teeth Whitener: The Science Behind Historic Uses of Urine, from Smithsonian:
http://bit.ly/1LkDKWb

Management of Infertility: Past, Present and Future (from a personal perspective), by Bruno Lunenfeld:
http://bit.ly/1LkFiPZ

‘Pee-Power’ to light camps in disaster zones, from UWE Bristol:
http://bit.ly/1LkDTsK

Urine-tricity, from Bristol Robotics Laboratory:
http://bit.ly/1LkDZ3w

From toilet to tap: Getting a taste for drinking recycled waste water, from CNN:
http://cnn.it/1LkEgTZ

Orange County’s Groundwater Replenishment System:
http://bit.ly/1LkKxPq

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