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'Green' toilet could light up refugee camps

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Courtesy of University of the West of England

(Read caption) The first 'green' toilet powered by urine will be sent to a refugee camp within the next six months. After testing it will be available more widely, initially in camps, but possibly also in other places without electricity, Oxfam says.

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A toilet that uses urine to generate electricity and can charge a mobile phone will soon light up dark corners of refugee camps after being tested by students in Britain.

The pioneering toilet, the result of collaboration between global aid agency Oxfam and the University of the West of England in Bristol, uses live microbes which feed on urine and convert it into power.

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"Living in a refugee camp is hard enough without the added threat of being assaulted in dark places at night. The potential of this is huge," Andy Bastable, head of water and sanitation at Oxfam, said in a statement.

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The first toilet will be sent to a refugee camp within the next six months, and after testing will be rolled out more widely, initially in camps, but possibly also in other places without electricity, Oxfam said.

"This technology is about as green as it gets, as we do not need to use fossil fuels and we are effectively using a waste product that will be in plentiful supply," said Ioannis Ieropoulos, director of the Bristol BioEnergy Centre and leader of the team that developed the toilet.

Bastable and Ieropoulos say it is the sustainability of the technology – it just needs a plentiful supply of urine – that makes it practical for aid agencies to use the toilet in the field.

"One microbial fuel cell costs about 1 pound [$1.50] to make, and we think that a small unit like the demo we have mocked up for this experiment could cost as little as 600 pounds [$900] to set up, which is a significant bonus as this technology is, in theory, everlasting," said Ieropoulos.

[Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly converted pounds to dollars.]

The prototype toilet, conveniently located near the University of the West of England's student union bar, was successfully tested by students who found it produced enough electricity to power a light bulb.

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(Reporting by Magdalena Mis; editing by Tim Pearce)

This article originally appeared at Thomson Reuters Foundation, a source of news, information, and connections for action. It provides programs that trigger change, empower people, and offer concrete solutions.