The stink is out of urine, literally and metaphorically, with a growing number of researchers spotting commercial and ecological value in a liquid most people consider waste.
The Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi, for instance, is working to harvest this human waste and convert it into fertiliser. The Delhi government is willing to consider a revenue-share commercial venture selling the phosphates and nitrates in urine.
On the outskirts of Delhi, a little-known non-government organisation, Fountain for Development Research and Action, is laying the ground for the first urine bank. It has diverted urine from two schools, where it has installed odour-free urinals, into a tank and transferred the run-off to a village nearby for use as fertiliser.
Director Madhab Nayak says the foundation is working towards making farmers aware of its potential as replacement for expensive urea.
“There is no such thing as waste,” says Vijayaraghavan M Chariar, assistant professor at the Centre for Rural Development and Technology at IIT. “Urine consists of a lot of inorganic salts, which produce gases only when mixed with water. It is, in fact, pure fertiliser,” he added.
IIT has come up with a cheap, odour-free, urinal which it has successfully tested on campus. The odour-free urinal combines technology with simple science to translate into a significant water-saving initiative (urine smells only when mixed with water, which this technology eliminates).
Urine is collected through a tank placed underground, harvested and used as liquid fertiliser two to three metres below the ground on a five-acre field on campus, said Chariar, who can talk animatedly about this human waste and how its poor treatment alone has led to sanitation problems.
The public urinal at IIT uses a simple technology, called Zerodor, developed by Chariar, that fits into the waste coupler in the pan and diverts the urine through a drain where it is collected and harvested. The idea is not to allow it to mix with water at any stage.
Chariar has already transferred this technology to Good Yield Environmental Technologies, a Kolkata firm, and filed for a patent. Chariar claims that Zerodor is a low cost product and would need replacement in only about two years.
Meanwhile, the Delhi government, which has already installed 200 such odourless urinals in different parts of the city, uses a different and perhaps more expensive technology. Amiya Chandra, deputy commissioner of the city’s municipal corporation, says, “Other than problems of vandalism, these urinals are working perfectly.”
In preparation for the Commonwealth Games, the Delhi government is planning to install 1,000 such urinals at a nominal cost of Rs 3 lakh.
Chariar is already working on the second phase of his project, which was initiated by Unicef and Stockholm Environment Institute, for setting up a small reactor to extract nitrates and phosphates from urine. “This could become a micro-enterprise from the urinal,” says Chariar.
The Delhi government is also looking at installing Chariar’s technology at a few parks in the city, while harvesting urine in those places.
Chariar has even designed similar urinals for women. “We have filed for trademark registration and we are in discussion with companies for marketing it,” he says. With a little more investment, he says, a hydrophobic coating on pans could make it water resistant and completely drain the urine, leaving no room for any oxidisation, which can also cause odour.
In the developed world, communities have been quick to realise the huge economic potential of urine. “Communities in Germany are exporting urine to neighbouring countriesthat are using it on their farms, says Chariar, explaining how it could be diverted for use as a nutrient by a simple plumbing.
The urine tank could deliver the liquid nutrient directly to plants about two to three metres below the soil, he says.
The Centre for Banana Research in Trichy is already using it for banana plantations and the University of agriculture Sciences, Bangalore, too is looking at its varied uses.