A trial by Queensland Urban Utilities and The University of Queensland (UQ) is harnessing the power of pee and testing its potential to be a sustainable source of fertiliser.

The ground-breaking research is the world’s first system to recover nitrogen, phosphorus and micronutrients from urine at the source – the loo – without using chemicals or power.

The trial is also testing the viability of using these nutrients, known as UGold, as a safe, low-energy fertiliser.

Queensland Urban Utilities spokesperson Michelle Cull said the trial was part of the utility’s ongoing commitment to waste-to-resource initiatives.

“We already have a poo-powered car which runs on electricity generated from sewage and the UGold project is another great example of turning waste into a useful resource,” Ms Cull said.

“Removing nitrogen and phosphorus from wastewater uses a huge amount of energy, so treating at the source could potentially save millions of dollars on electricity and infrastructure costs.

“The trial is taking place at the Innovation Centre at our Luggage Point Sewage Treatment Plant, so we’ve been encouraging our employees to put their number ones to good use.

“A successful trial could pave the way for more waterless urinals, urine-separating toilets and on-site wastewater treatment plants at high-density offices, apartment buildings and even shopping centres in the future.”

Producing a sustainable source of fertiliser

UQ’s Advanced Water Management Centre Associate Professor, Dr Stefano Freguia, is leading the trial of the UGold electro-concentration system.

“Nitrogen and phosphorus are in high demand for agricultural fertiliser, but the current process of producing these resources is energy intensive and can create other environmental problems,” Dr Freguia said.

“The UGold system could create a more sustainable source of nitrogen and phosphorus for fertiliser and also reduce the amount of energy required to treat sewage, which would be a win for business and for the environment.

“As the population continues to grow, we need to find sustainable and safe ways to manage different waste streams, including human waste.”

UQ’s School of Agriculture and Food Science Professor Susanne Schmidt said the UGold project was aligned with ongoing research into next-generation fertilisers by UQ researchers and industry collaborators.

“There is so much potential to manage waste and generate next-generation fertilisers in the process – the global fertiliser market is worth $230 billion and the Australian market alone is worth $3 billion,” Professor Schmidt said.

“Current mineral fertilisers have a considerable environmental footprint, and transitioning to a circular nutrient economy by recycling nutrients in waste has many benefits.”

The UGold trial commenced in December 2017 at Queensland Urban Utilities’ Innovation Centre, where two waterless urinals have been installed at an on-site toilet block and connected to an adjoining laboratory.

In the laboratory, urine travels through a series of battery-like systems and produces an electric current, which pushes the phosphorus and nitrogen and other micronutrients through a membrane system and concentrates them into a nutrient-rich product.

Dr Freguia said the team was trialling the UGold product on plants in the laboratory, with promising results so far.

“We’ve been testing the UGold product on tomato plants and found the plant which received UGold has grown three times faster than the control plant,” he said.

“The focus in phase one of the research has been to optimise the electro-concentration system to minimise its cost and achieve an ideal proportion of nutrients in the UGold product.

“In the next phase, we are planning to trial the use of the UGold product on crops on a larger scale.”

The UGold trial is part of an Australian Research Council Linkage Project, where Queensland Urban Utilities and Memtech (formerly ABR Process) are the industry partners.

Waterless urinals were donated by Caroma to support the trial.

Queensland Urban Utilities, along with its partners, currently hosts more than $10 million worth of research at its Innovation Centre, where scientists work alongside engineers and operators to explore new and innovative ways to operate.

For information about other innovative projects underway at Queensland Urban Utilities’ Innovation Centre, visit urbanutilities.com.au/innovation.

To learn more about The University of Queensland’s Advanced Water Management Centre and its research, visit awmc.uq.edu.au. 

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