Researchers Generate Electricity from the Urine of Cannabis Users

By Loren DeVito, PhD on January 21, 2019

Cannabis research had quite a year in 2018. From the first Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval of a cannabis-based medicine to multiple studies published in top-tier science and medical journals, the plant is officially out of the basement and into the spotlight as a cornucopia of chemicals worthy of study. And while many of these studies were widely shared and will have long-lasting impact on the scientific community, some others, well, were equally intriguing but perhaps for different reasons.

One such study was published right at the beginning of this year. For this study published in Bioresource Technology Reports, researchers in Turkey used urine from cannabis users to make electricity.

Yes, you read that right.

This concept may seem to come far out of left field but the idea of using urine to create electricity has actually been around for quite a while. The technology that supports “wee power” uses microbial fuel cells (MFCs), bio-electrochemical instruments that convert energy stored in chemical compounds into electricity through reactions in bacteria. This technology was developed to create new sources of energy to fit the needs of developing countries in a sustainable manner that replaces the use of oil and coal.

Urine consists mostly of water but also contains a small amount of urea (waste from the body), which is made up of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen. Using either MFCs, which uses bacteria, or electrolysis, which forces an electric current to drive a chemical reaction, urea is split into its chemical components, and hydrogen is isolated as an energy source. Once the hydrogen is purified, it can be used in a generator.

Over the past few years, researchers have been working on making this process more efficient and scaling it up to generate larger amounts of electricity. Additional study also revealed that MFCs can be used to kill pathogens in wastewater. This finding in particular motivated the authors of the recent study to see if MFCs could degrade cannabis metabolites in urine while at the same time producing electricity. While cannabis is safe for human consumption, metabolites in urine can be problematic for our aquatic friends. So, researchers decided to explore the role of MFCs in cleaning up urine and churning up power.

In this study, urine samples from regular cannabis users and synthetic urine were processed by MFCs. Cannabis-laced urine indeed generated electricity, though not quite at the level of synthetic urine. However, MFCs were also able to degrade cannabis metabolites by more than 60 percent (THC, specifically).

So, should cannabis users turn over their urine to help advance science and the environment? Maybe one day. But for now, additional research is certainly needed to better understand the real potential for MFCs to provide substantial energy generation. In fact, another recent study piloted the use of MFCs to process urine taken from the Glastonbury Music Festival, and it’s pretty safe to bet that there were a wide variety of substances in that sample.

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