Urine typically just gets flushed down the drain, but researchers at the Army Research Lab (ARL) at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, found a way to make use of that pee.
The research team actually made the discovery by accident when the nano-galvanic aluminum-based powder they were developing produced pure hydrogen when it came into contact with water. From there, they started looking into what other types of liquids that contain water would generate a similar reaction when combined with the powder.
That is what helped lead them to human urine, which is about 95 percent water. In fact, researchers found that combining urine and the powder released hydrogen at a faster rate than regular water.
Why? Well, ARL researcher Anit Giri said his team is still trying to answer that question.
"There are several electrolytes in urine, some chemical species, and also the pH of urine is slightly acidic so that may play a role, but we are still investigating," Giri explained.
More importantly, the research team said this discovery could put the Army's away and special ops teams at an advantage in the field.
That's because hydrogen has the potential to power fuel cells. According to the Department of Energy, fuel cells can "power almost any portable application that typically uses batteries, from hand-held devices to portable generators."
Researchers said because of that, they are focusing on how this breakthrough could help soldiers on the ground.
"Currently our away teams and our secret ops are severely overburdened with just the weight that they have to carry in batteries," explained ARL researcher Kris Darling. "The ability to un-burden them with a fuel source that’s very high-energy density [and] potentially generates power very quietly, is a very unique opportunity."
In addition, the Department of Energy notes that "hydrogen-powered fuel cells are not only pollution-free, but also can have two to three times the efficiency of traditional combustion technologies."
The ARL researchers noted that soldiers are highly dependent on electrical devices in the field because those devices allow them to receive intelligence information. That's why they say this new and potentially very quiet way of recharging could be a big advantage.
Darling added that this material could be easily airdropped into places that are very remote. Currently it can be very costly to airdrop JP-8, which is a jet fuel used by the U.S. military, he explained.
"The idea of being able to airdrop this in very easily and potentially have an away team go retrieve it is also very advantageous for logistics," Darling said.
In the future, Giri said this powder, because it is structurally stable, could be 3D printed.
"For example, you can use 3D printing to build self-cannibalizing robots or drones," Giri said, discussing the potential applications for this material.
But for now, the research team said they want to focus on the individual soldier's needs.
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