New Plumbing Systems for Urine?

New technology to extract hydrogen from urine may have implications for building plumbing systems. Researchers at Ohio University are developing methods to extract hydrogen from urine and use the gas to generate electricity. Their press releases optimistically predict that large scale systems for use in industrial animal husbandry will be online within a year.

Changes in building design are necessarily slower, but could follow within 5 to 10 years if the agricultural prototypes are cost effective. I speculate that penetration into building design will follow the growing acceptance of waterless urinals. Instead of draining the urinals into the conventional sanitary drain lines, the fixtures would have separate drainage lines leading to urine collection tanks and power generation. Once the value of the power is established, combined with further efforts promoting water conservation, we may see an increased use of bidets to collect urine from women.

I further speculate that the initial market will be in larger projects -- stadia, schools, and office buildings for example -- where urinals are already in use and there would be an economy of scale.

Simultaneously, there may be a boutique business for homeowners trying to live off-the-grid.

Acceptance in building types that do not already have urinals (or bidets) will have the initial cost burden of providing additional fixtures and the floor area for them. But the operational and environmental benefits of generating power and conserving water may yet justify the expense. An alternative would be the invention of new types of water closets that could flush solids while simply draining liquids.

Plumbing goods manufacturers would be well advised to monitor this technology.

FOLLOW-UP: A televised public service announcement in Brazil is urging people to urinate while they shower as a way to conserve water and protect the rainforests. It looks like Ohio University ought to pack a bag and pay a visit to the water districts in Brazil.