Stories tagged urine

Jul
10
2009

Turn the arrows around, and you've got the right idea!: Feels like clean energy, doesn't it?
Turn the arrows around, and you've got the right idea!: Feels like clean energy, doesn't it?Courtesy bre pettis
Just kidding! The burning sensation is probably just one of the many symptoms you’ll experience during your bout with gonorrhea. It may feel like electric fire, but, really, it’s only inflammation somewhere in your urinary tract.

But while we’re on the subjects of urine, electric fire, and the future, check this out: your bladder is full of rich, savory hydrogen fuel, and some Ohio scientists have found a great way to get at it.

Using urine in power storage/production devices has been explored before, and, naturally, Science Buzz has been all over it. The story that was on Buzz before, however, was about using urine as an electrolyte medium in batteries, so it’s just there to allow the passage of electrons from one material to another. (That’s how I understood it, anyway—I couldn’t get to the original article.)

What we have here is something entirely different. With this technology, it’s the urine itself that could supply power, instead of just activating a chemical reaction in other materials.

Hydrogen, as we all know, is awesome. It’s easy to remember where it is on the periodic table (somewhere near the beginning, I think), it’s light, so it can lift stuff like zeppelins up in the air, it’s super flammable, so it can run the internal combustion engines we love so much, and it can be made to undergo a chemical reaction in a fuel cell, producing electricity. Unfortunately, hydrogen is also kind of... not awesome. Its otherwise delightful explosiveness also means that riding a hydrogen-filled zeppelin isn’t a great idea, it’s tricky to store, and despite being the most common element in the universe, it’s a pain to get a hold of.

We can get hydrogen out of water, because every molecule of water has two hydrogen atoms for each oxygen atom. But those hydrogen and oxygen atoms don’t like splitting apart, so we have to run electricity through water to get them to break up, and depending on how we produced that electricity, it sort of defeats the purpose; we’re using a lot of some other kind of fuel to make hydrogen fuel.

These clever Ohio scientists, however, realized that by using the right materials, they could get hydrogen and nitrogen to split apart from each other with a lot less electricity. (It takes them .037 volts to split hydrogen and nitrogen, compared to 1.23 volts for hydrogen and oxygen.) Where, then, is a cheap plentiful source of nitrogen bound with hydrogen? Where indeed…

You know where this is going: urine, or as I call it, yellow gold. Urea, one of the main components of urine, has four hydrogen atoms bound to two nitrogen atoms. If you put a nickel electrode into some urine and run electricity through it, that hydrogen gets released, and you can do with it what you will.

One cow, claim the scientists, could produce enough hydrogen to supply hot water for 19 houses. A gallon of urine could theoretically power a car with a hydrogen fuel cell for 90 miles. A refrigerator-sized unit, they say, “could produce one kilowatt of energy for about $5,000.” Someone might have to help me out on that last one. That can’t be per kilowatt, or “kilowatt-hour” (how we usually measure electricity usage), because a kilowatt-hour costs about 10 cents these days. I’m assuming that it would cost about $5,000 to build a unit like that, and the cost to run it would largely fall upon your kidneys. (Maybe?) Commercial farms, required to pool their animal waste anyhow, could power themselves with all the spare hydrogen.

It’s a pretty neat idea, and one that I actually had a long time ago. I have to give it to the scientists, though—they definitely advanced on my original idea. See I was just trying to burn urine straight up, and, frankly, it wasn’t working. Nothing about it was working.

I’m wondering, also, what the byproduct of urine-produced hydrogen would be. Fuel cells should just produce water vapor, but what’s happening when the hydrogen is separated from the urea? The chemical formula for urea is (NH2)2CO, so after the hydrogen leaves you’ve got two leftover nitrogen atoms, a carbon atom, and an oxygen atom. Laughing gas, or nitrous oxide, is N2O, but what about that carbon? We don’t like carbon just wandering around unsupervised these days.

Can anyone help me out here? When we remove the hydrogen from (NH2)2CO, what’s left over?

May
21
2009

Pure, delicious water: Drink up!
Pure, delicious water: Drink up!Courtesy viking_79
Raise a glass of cool, clear water for our girls and boys in space.

After the removal of a “sticky check valve” in the Urine Processing Assembly on Monday, astronauts on the International Space Station have finally been given a “go” to drink “recycled” water. Wondering, no doubt, what exactly made that valve so sticky, our brave orbiting scientists can now sit back and hesitantly sip tepid, musty water from pouches not entirely unlike catheter bags.

That’s how I like to imagine it, anyway. I suspect, however, that most things on the space station are pretty fancy, and that any water recycling system they’d have up there would do a pretty good job of removing the subtle flavors of urine, sweat, and exhaled moisture (all of which are processed by the system). Hopefully it chills the end product a little bit too. There’s nothing like drinking something the temperature of spit for making you feel like you’re drinking spit.

The technology has been a long time coming. The system was only installed late last year, but it has been the dream of mankind for generations that we might somehow find a way to reuse what we so wastefully flush away (“yellow gold,” we call it). Especially in space. If we ever want to take extended trips in space (and we do—even going to Mars would take months and months), water and waste recycling systems are going to be essential. These brave, thirsty astronauts are finally taking a bold step toward that wonderful future.

Dec
13
2008

A night vision fox?: The perfect weapon.
A night vision fox?: The perfect weapon.Courtesy Josh Russell
Weariness toward the younger generations is usually more Gene’s territory than my own, but I couldn’t pass this up.

Not that Gene himself is necessarily weary of younger people… I don’t want to put words in your mouth, Gene, it’s just that I came across this story of a local gentleman taking “stay off my lawn” to glorious new heights.

It seems that a 50-year-old man from Willmar, Minnesota, was fed up with the repeated toilet-papering of his house by young nogoodniks, and decided to take matters into his own hands on the nearby high school’s most recent homecoming night. (And before y’all get all up-in-arms—you know who else took matters into his own hands? John Rambo. And, like, George Washington. We don’t hold it against them, do we?)

Anyway, this modern day Michael Douglas, who we’ll call “Scott Edward Wagar,” wasn’t content to hide behind the bushes with the garden hose. Instead, he got all high-tech—using night-vision goggles, Scott Edward Wagar ambushed a group of teens approaching his house, and sprayed them with a supersoaker squirt gun filled with… fox urine!

Oh, man… not since The Boy Who Could Fly

After the urine dousing, things got pretty confusing. There was something about a struggle and a hurt finger… the events aren’t totally clear to me. The next day, however, Scott found a dropped cell phone on his property and held it for ransom, and there was some yelling and screaming involved. I’ll try not to think about that part too much—Wagar was probably drunk on the heady brew of victory at the time.

So what does this have to do with science? Not a whole lot, really, but we could go over Wagars arsenal in a sciencey sort of way.

So… night vision goggles. Human’s natural night vision relies on the maximum dilation of the pupil (to allow as much light into the eye as possible), and a molecule in the eye called rhodopsin. Rhodopsin in our retinas is extremely sensitive to light—according to Wikipedia, at least, it’s responsible for more effective light capture in the rod cells of the eye, or for more efficient light-to-electrical energy conversion. Either way, it takes about half an hour in the dark for rhdopsin to build up to maximum levels. The instant that rhodopsin is exposed to white light, however, it bleaches and loses all night vision enhancing properties.

What are we poor, night-blind humans supposed to do? Night vision goggles! We’re all familiar with night vision technology, thanks to our rad action movies, but it turns out that there are multiple kinds of night vision goggles. “Active infrared” night vision works by emitting infrared light, which is invisible to human eyes but can be picked up by the goggles and converted to visible light. The thing is, active infrared can be seen by other night vision goggles like someone waving a flashlight around, so if any of those kids had infrared vision, the gig would have been up for Scott Wagar. That’s why there’s also…

Themal vision goggles, which we also know about thanks to our rad video games, work by making tiny temperature differences visible—the heat emitted by a living body (or any object that isn’t totally frozen) is, again, represented in visible light by the goggles. And because the goggles use the radiation emitted from other objects, instead of shining radiation (i.e. the infrared light used by active infrared goggles) on other objects.

Finally, there are “image intensifier” goggles. These work by detecting tiny amounts of ambient light (it’s rare that you’d be in a situation that is absolutely dark) and intensifying it. When photons (light) enter the goggles, they hit a detector plate, and each photon causes an electron to be released from the plate. These electrons are accelerated by a magnetic field in the goggles, and hit another plate, causing a whole bunch of electrons to be emitted, which then hit a phosphor screen to make an image (this is the same way older TVs make images—through electrons hitting a phosphor screen. The image that is displayed by the goggles to the wearer is in monochrome (one color), because the detector plates in the goggles don’t distinguish between the wavelengths of the photons hitting them—that is, all colors of light entering the goggles are just detected as light, not colored light. We know about this kind of night vision though rad movies also—you know when some guy with a gun and night vision goggles walks into a room, and then some other guy with a gun and probably no night vision goggles flips on the lights, and the first guy gets all blind because there are so many more photons hitting the detector plate in his goggles, and more electrons are being released, and the phosphor screen gets really bright in his eyes, and then he probably gets shot or knocked on the head with something by the second guy. It makes more sense now, doesn’t it?

I’m guess Wagar had some sort of image intensifying goggles.

As for fox urine… Well, I hear that it’s super stinky. I was going to get more into what makes it super stinky, but this whole post has taken me way longer to write than I had originally intended. If you’re really into animal pee, though, and foxes in particular, there are plenty of resources out there for you to examine. Like this. Or this. Or this, I guess.

Scott Edward Wagar, you have amazed us all. And, kids, when someone gives you the old “And stay off my lawn,” maybe you should take it seriously. (Or you could start carrying bright strobe lights, rain jackets, and water balloons full of something worse than fox pee when you plan on TPing someone’s house.)

Nov
18
2008

Woman contemplates a future of urine drinking: As she sips her apple juice.
Woman contemplates a future of urine drinking: As she sips her apple juice.Courtesy vcalzone
Hey, hey, don’t get too excited, Buzzketeers. We’ve been drinking our own pee for a long time. Way back in the past, we drank it for ceremonial purposes. And back in the present we drank it all the time! We drank it to stay alive, we drank it to be on TV (we loved TV back then, didn’t we?), and sometimes we drank it just because we were into that sort of thing.

But here in the future, we’ve really perfected drinking pee. And not just in the Kevin Costner/Waterworld way—that method requires gravity and science fiction, and we’ve figured out how to do it without gravity, with science.

The obvious application here is astronauts. As intriguing as zero gravity and space travel might sound initially, the fact remains that astronauts are trapped in a relatively tiny capsule for great lengths of time with little to occupy their time beyond telling dirty jokes and drinking their own urine. Unfortunately, there are only so many dirty jokes (although mixing and matching punch lines can extend things), and, as wikipedia’s entry on urophagia reminds us, you can only drink your own wiz so many times before problems arise. (Although, as I understand it, the problem with repeatedly drinking pee isn’t that you end up drinking super-pee, but that you get dehydrated, and your body has to reabsorb the toxins from the urine.)

With this new development in urophage tech, however, it looks like astronauts will be able to while away mission hours drinking pee to their hearts’ content.

Now, it should at least be mentioned that the aim of technology here is to turn the pee into something called “water,” and to then drink it. But the principle remains the same. Existing urine-recycling systems rely on gravity, but, again, that’s not an option for astronauts. The new system, soon to be installed on the International Space Station, will take urine, along with water from hand washing, tooth brushing, showering, and space suit sweat, and extract free gas and solid materials from the fluid, before removing remaining contaminants with “a high-temperature chemical reaction.” The result, according to one astronaut, can be “purer than what you drink here on Earth.”

That, ma’am, sounds like a challenge.

Potential efforts to defeat the system through dietary or medical methods aside, the water reclamation process makes a lot of sense. Previously, urine was vented into space, and more water needed to be delivered to the space station. This process should cut about 15,000 pounds from the amount of water and consumables that need to be brought to the station each year, and with the cost of shipping each pint of fresh water into space hovering around $10,000, the savings are nothing to sneeze at. (Considering that “a pint’s a pound the world around,” the system should save something like $150,000,000 a year, if the cost is actually as simple as those figures.)

And no doubt it’ll keep the astronauts happy.

Jul
17
2008

Doing it right now: just not venting yet.
Doing it right now: just not venting yet.Courtesy NASA
Fine. Be a jerk about it—apparently there are only two reasons I could be an astronaut. There are definitely plenty of reasons why I should be an astronaut—including, but not limited to, 1) people love astronauts, 2) when aliens come, you’ll want someone on the front lines with gumption and verve, 3) I’ve seen Apollo 13, like, twice, etc—but nobody seems to care about those. No, it’s always “but what are your qualifications? Are you a pilot? An astronomer? How do you handle heavy g-force? Have you a buzz cut?”

Numerous and impressive. No. Not technically. Pretty well, I assume. Not at the moment, no.

But let’s look at the important things: primarily that I have a fully functional renal system, and can pee with the best of them. And that’s an important thing at NASA these days. Or so I hear.

An internal memo from NASA, calling for donations of urine, has been, um, leaked to the public. It seems that during the last ten days of July, NASA will be requiring about 8 gallons of fresh urine a day (the output of about 30 people) for super-secret, awesome space tests. That is to say, to help figure out how to build a better space bathroom.

It turns out that while peeing in space is probably a little tricky (and hilarious), storing and getting rid of that pee is at least equally problematic. The Orion space capsule, which will help ferry astronauts to the moon, will eventually have to vent stored astronaut pee into space. This, amazingly, isn’t as easy as spitting out a mouthful of lemonade—urine has lots of tiny solids suspended in it, and those solids clog up the venting system. And you don’t want clogged vents. Not here, and not in space.

To test the space urinal, NASA needs pee. And, as NASA’s head of life support systems says, you can’t make fake urine.

But I can make the real stuff. And I don’t want to brag, but it’s actually pretty easy for me.

Unfortunately, NASA only wants NASA pee (the original memo was internal, after all). But I’ll be waiting by the phone, ready to do my duty for America. In return, I only ask that a seat be saved for me on the lunar lander.

Dec
31
2007

A lifetime of work: down the drain.
A lifetime of work: down the drain.Courtesy Artivist
So, I was lying in bed the other day wondering if my life would ever amount to anything.

Now, I can just picture your little mouths mouthing, “But, JGordon! How could you possibly think that about yourself? You have a bachelor’s degree! And you have a job that pays slightly more than minimum wage! And a beard!”

Hush, my Buzzketeers, hush. Sure, all of those things are pretty great, but when I’m gone what will remain of me? Piles of plastic packaging, probably, and maybe the beard. So what? What kind of legacy is that to leave the world? Where is my body of work? My corpus workus, as they say in Latin.

And I got to thinking, on that bleak afternoon. I tried to imagine which of the things I do every day might eventually add up into something special. The task was made difficult by the fact that I do very little every day, except, perhaps, sleep and eat. But… there is something else that I do every day, something I’ve done every day for as long as I can remember: urinate! While that may not seem like much when you think of it on the daily scale, try to imagine a lifetime of urinating – practically oceans of pee, right? Something to be proud of, certainly.

The whole thing was still on my mind as I went to work the next day. Now, it just so happens that the Human Body Gallery at the Science Museum of Minnesota has a fun little display of jugs and cartons representing the amounts of the various bodily effluvia that we produce every day, stuff like snot, and sweat, and… pee. There was something to think about! So, in between smiles and nods, I did some math.

According to the soda bottle full of yellow stuff, we produce between 4 and 8 cups of urine a day (Wikipedia verifies this although it uses that confounded and confounding metric system). I suppose that all depends on the individual person, but being a fairly average guy, I decided to settle on a nice 6 cups of urine per day. I decided, also, that I will live to be 80 years old (for the purposes of this calculation, at least). So, in 80 years there are 29,200 days. No, wait, 29,220 days (or something). At 6 cups a day, we have a lifetime accumulation 175,320 cups of pee. There are 16 cups in a gallon, so we have 10,957.5 gallons of pee. That’s a lot!

But, then again, just how much is 10,957.5 gallons exactly? Well, it would take up about 1465 cubic feet, but what is it in terms I can use? Because we’re talking about lifetime achievements here. How does my 10,957.5 gallons stack up next to, say, an Olympic size swimming pool? Now, filling an Olympic size pool, that would truly be something to be proud of.

Obviously, there are going to be different sizes of Olympic pools, but the word on the street says that they generally hold about 2,500,000 liters. Argh! That metric system again! Let’s see. There are 3.785411784 liters per gallon, so the Olympic pool would hold…

About 660,430 gallons. Oh.

That’s 649,472.5 more gallons than my 10,957.5 gallons, and, to be honest, I probably wouldn’t even have that much if you factor in my childhood (which I’m sure was sub-par when it came to urine production).

What a tremendous letdown.

To fill that Olympic pool I would need 61 lifetimes of peeing, or 60 friends saving their pee for one lifetime, and I don’t think I even know 60 other people, much less 60 other people willing to make that kind of commitment for me.

I was crestfallen. No, strike that, I am crestfallen. What else is there for me? I can’t take up scrapbooking again, not after what happened at the last meeting. What can I do?

And what can you all do? Unless you pee 60 times as much as I do, you’re all in the same rapidly filling boat as me. Start bailing.

Aug
28
2007

I don't give these out to just anyone: Otzi has one just like it.  (Photo by Sarodeo on flickr.com)
I don't give these out to just anyone: Otzi has one just like it. (Photo by Sarodeo on flickr.com)
Meng Xianchen and Meng Xianyou, two brothers working in a Chinese coal mine, were trapped underground with no supplies after the mine they were working in collapsed. The mine, located in Beijing’s Fangshan district, was illegal and had no oxygen, ventilation, or emergency exits. Officials called off the rescue effort after only a day, determining that there was no chance that the Meng brothers could have survived, and that further attempts to extract the bodies would only put the rescue workers at risk themselves. Family members placed food offerings at the collapsed entrance to the mine, and burned “ghost money” for the men to use in the afterlife.

Picture everyone’s surprise, then, when the Meng brothers clawed their way out of the mine five days later, weak and dehydrated, but alive. It seems that Xianchen and Xianyou didn’t give up when they heard the rescue workers stop digging, but instead started digging in the direction of the last sound. They had some small light for the first two days, thanks to their cellphones, but when the batteries died they resorted to listening and feeling around with their fingers. To survive, the brothers... (wait for it)... ate coal and drank their own urine! Oh, and they dug through 66 feet of coal and rock with their picks and hands.

With that, Xianchen and Xianyou have officially dug their way on to my very exclusive list of People Way Way Tougher Than Me. The Meng brothers are now in the good company of Otzi the Iceman, The Mad Monk Rasputin, and Jack Palance (which makes them, I suppose, the only living people officially “Way Way Tougher Than Me”).

Let’s examine the achievement:

The dig - As I said, 66 feet of rock and coal, dug at a 75 degree angle (steep). The shaft was so narrow that only one Meng could dig at a time. They averaged about one yard for every six hours of digging, having to constantly shore up the walls and ceiling of their tunnel to prevent debris from sliding back on them.

Survival - The main problem would be the lack of oxygen, especially in an unventilated illegal mine like theirs. The article I read doesn’t say much about this, but it seems that there was either air trapped in the mine already, or sufficient oxygen filtered down from the blocked opening. Either way, it did the trick. The coal that the miners ate would have had no nutritional value, but it probably gave them a “full” feeling. They get points for eating it, though, and bonus points for being quoted as saying “We ate coal and thought it tasted delicious.” The brothers also used two empty water bottles they found in the mine to save their urine. Almost no one likes drinking urine, but the Mengs did it anyway. Urine drinking can keep a person alive for several extra days if no other liquids are available. I had always assumed that the more times one drank their own urine, the worse it would be. It turns out that the opposite is true - the body absorbs a little bit of the toxins from consumed urine, and so the kidneys have a slightly smaller amount of toxins to filter out into the next batch of urine. Therefore, the urine becomes a little more potable and water-like each time it is consumed, but there’s less of it (as the body absorbs some of the water too). So the problem with drinking one’s own urine is that it can’t be done indefinitely, because eventually one will just run out. Also, one’s body is forced to reabsorb all the toxins it had tried to get rid of. Also, there’s the whole drinking pee issue.

Anyway, it all worked out for the Mengs, who have since declared that their 20 year mining careers are now over. Enjoy your place on the wall of fame, guys. We salute you.

Jan
30
2007

Traffic danger: A scientific solution may be coming to prevent vehicle/deer collisions. Lining high-danger highways with canisters of wolf, coyote or bear urine may keep deer from crossing the roads.
Traffic danger: A scientific solution may be coming to prevent vehicle/deer collisions. Lining high-danger highways with canisters of wolf, coyote or bear urine may keep deer from crossing the roads.
With a personal driving record that includes three dead deer from the fenders of my car, I’m all in favor of finding new ways to prevent auto/deer collisions.

That’s why I was glad to read today’s press accounts of a new idea to help reduce highway deer accidents: the use of wolf, coyote or bear urine. That’s one of the new ideas being discussed this week at a summit of law enforcement officials from nine states meeting in the Twin Cities.

How exactly would that work? Canisters with urine would be placed along roadways that have high incidents of deer crashes. The thought is that the deer would be able to smell the urine and turn back on their path as not to get close to a predator.

It’s a very plausible idea in places like Minnesota and Wisconsin, where there are healthy populations of the predators. But what about places further south? That’s what members of the law enforcement group want to study. They don’t know if deer will react to the smell of urine from predators they’ve never faced before.

High fliers: These white tails in action show how fast and fleet deer can be out in the forests.
High fliers: These white tails in action show how fast and fleet deer can be out in the forests.
Minnesota is also working on a deer control project of its own. Using a dual set of light beams along side roads, the presence of a deer near the road could be sensed and send a signal to lights on deer crossing signs along that road. The lasers would be spaced far enough apart (six inches) so they couldn’t both be set off by smaller animals. The lights on the deer crossing sign would flash for about a minute in the vicinity of where the deer, or other large animal, crossed through the light beams.

At test of that plan will be done over the course of this year near Camden State Park in southwest Minnesota along Hwy. 23. Each year between 40 and 80 deer are killed by vehicles on that stretch of road.

Statewide, there were 4,176 vehicle/deer crashes in Minnesota in 2005 (statistics for 2006 are not yet compiled). Two people died in those crashes.

Other solutions to vehicle/deer crashes are not so popular with the public, including culling deer herds with special hunts.

But what I really want to know, how are they going to collect the predator urine? I, for one, am not going to go around to ask any wolves, coyotes or bears to pee into a little cup.

Sep
02
2005


Urine Power: A credit card-size battery powered by urine. Photograph courtesy Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology

This is another story where I can only imagine what the lab that does this research is like...

Scientists in Singapore have reported that they have invented a small, credit card sized battery that is activated using urine.

The government funded Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology developed the battery for use in medical diagnostic test kits. These test kits are often used to study the chemical composition of a person's urine to detect an illness. Researchers studying ways to make a small, efficient and inexpensive battery to power these test kits realized that the substance being tested - urine - could also be used to provide power for the test kit.

To make the battery, pieces of paper are soaked in a solution of copper chloride and then sandwiched between strips of magnesium and copper. This "sandwich" is then laminated between two sheets of plastic. When a drop of urine is added to the paper through a slit in the plastic, a chemical reaction takes place that produces about 1.5 volts of electricity - about the same as a AA battery - for about 90 minutes.

The research team who developed the battery describes their work in the current issue of the Journal of Micromechanics and Microengineering.

Given the high cost of energy lately, a cheap and plentiful energy source would be welcome. If these batteries could be successfully scaled up they could be used for larger applications, such as laptops, mp3 players or even cars.

Fueling up the car may never be the same.