Ureaka! How urine-powered socks can solve our energy needs

16 Dec 2015

As bizarre and unhygienic as it sounds, a combination of socks, sandals and urine pumped to our feet might just turn us all into walking electricity generators.

The idea of urine-powered socks sounds absolutely daft, obviously, but the idea actually has sound scientific reasoning, except for the fact the team involved is testing it while wearing both socks and sandals, the world’s greatest fashion faux pas.

Developed by a team of electrical engineers from the University of the West of England in Bristol and led by professor Ioannis Ieropoulos, the rather awkward-looking equipment uses a series of valves located on the insole of the wearer’s foot, which acts as a giant pump for urine collected throughout the day.

As the person walks around in their day-to-day life with a bag of urine and tubes strapped to them, 648mm of that urine is circulated throughout the tubes, where it eventually reaches the microbial fuel cells (MFCs) that take the urine and turn it into electricity.

Urine-powered socks

Design image via Prof Ieropoulous et al

The in-theory simple idea, published in Bioinspiration & Biometrics and picked up by New Scientist, is just one of many urine-powered tech devices proposed by Prof Ieropolous, who previously used human waste and MFCs to power devices from a mobile phone to a 3D-printed robotic heart.

Of course, the idea of having to carry your waste around for the simple reason of charging your phone seems ridiculous, which begs the question: how do you actually put the urine in your socks?

Well, Prof Ieropolous sees a future that is reminiscent of the inhabitants of the planet Dune, from the famous science-fiction novel of the same name, all of  who wore ‘stillsuits’ that would harvest every drop of water from their bodies and recycle it so they could survive the barren, desert world.

“We envisage gear or clothing that already has or could have excretion incorporated, without people having to worry about collecting or handling their urine,” he says.

“With a bit of imagination, it is not difficult to see how this could be part of smart textiles for more general use.”

Man offended by sock image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic