You don’t have to spend much time digging around in the Utne Reader’s library to learn that alchemy of one sort or another remains an enduring obsession of both science and society. The magazines and newspapers of our time are full of stories that are essentially about people trying to turn one thing (usually worthless) into something else (usually something of value). On one end of the spectrum you have the alchemy of celebrity as exemplified by Lady Gaga, and on the other there are the alchemists of the Green movement, who are trying to save the earth. You could, I suppose, disagree about where the most interesting alchemy is taking place, but you’d have to be living in a pretty shallow pool to think that anything Ms. Gaga is up to is of greater relevance than—just for instance—the work of Gerardine Botte. And as fascinating as I may find the antics of the former, I’m even prepared to argue that Botte’s got Gaga beat in the interesting department.
A professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Ohio University, Botte has, according to Conservation Magazine, somehow figured out how to turn urine into hydrogen fuel. It turns out that urine contains two compounds—ammonia and urea—that are necessary for the production of hydrogen.
I’ll be honest and admit that I don’t have any idea how the hell this business might work (and, yes, I did read the article), but it sounds legitimate and potentially inspiring. And should you wish to write off Botte as a crackpot, understand that she’s apparently not alone in embracing urine’s energy potential; Conservation’s Sarah DeWeerdt reports that there’s also a company in the U.K. that is already at work on a fuel cell “powered directly by urine.”
Botte, though, might already be one step ahead of the Brits. She is the chief technology officer for a recently-launched company, E3 Technologies, that aims to commercialize what they call “pee power.” E3 hopes to have a “GreenBox” prototype on the market by the end of 2011.