Liquid Gold: University of Michigan takes on urine recycling

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (WXYZ) - The next time you pee into a urinal, or toilet, on the University of Michigan campus you may be helping scientists push new boundaries.

A partnership between the Vermont-based Rich Earth Institute and the college has led to a new “urine diverting toilet system.” One men’s waterless urinal and a specialized women’s split-tank toilet were unveiled this week inside the G.G. Brown building on University of Michigan’s north campus. It captures urine and stores it so that a new treatment system can turn it into fertilizer.

“We’re really pushing the frontier on the theoretical side and the practical side at the same time,” said Abe Noe-Hays, a research director, and co-founder of Rich Earth Institute.

The benefit of the process taking place on campus at this very moment is two-fold: the system cuts down on water pollution by removing nutrients from water that cause water pollution, at the same time the by-product of the work creates a fertilizer that could one day be used on farms across the country.

According to Noe-Hays, a single person generates enough urine in one day to fertilize enough crops to produce an entire loaf of bread every day.

“We’re talking about a massive amount of fertilizer that can be harvested from urine,” said Noe-Hays. “About 25-percent of this country’s entire need could be met by urine alone.”

Currently Rich Earth Institute is working on multiple projects to determine which is the most beneficial in terms of energy, and cost-effectiveness.

Malavika Sahai, a UM graduate student who is working on the project, said that a big part of what they need from the public is reaction to the toilets, and whether they understand the concept behind them.

“We’ve been talking about this for months, so the concept is so easy for us to understand,” said Sahai, “Right now we are really trying to get people’s initial reaction as soon as they use this technology so we know really what they think about it.”

The toilets don’t look much different than what you’d see in a normal public restroom. Inside the men’s room you’ll notice a single waterless urinal much like devices you’ll see across the country being implemented, the main difference is a sign above the toilet. Inside the women’s bathroom the toilet has two parts, one is a waterless urine capture system, the back is filled with a small amount of water so toilet paper can be flushed.

The urine is sent through pipes to a small room filled with high-tech gadgets that monitor every step from urine to fertilizer and a clean-water byproduct.

The urine goes into a storage tank until enough is collected for it to go into an osmosis machine. The by-product is distilled a second time to ensure that most of the water is removed leaving a concentrated fertilizer product that has been sanitized. The remaining water, virtually free of any trace of urine, is ready to go down the drain.

Research will be done over the next four years to determine the “best practices” on how the procedure operates. The research will be compared to other ongoing projects to determine which works the best, and to determine whether the process can be replicated on a graders scale.

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