By CG Science Editor Audrey Rabalais
The answers to clean water, clean air and waste management could all be held inside a box as small as a mini-fridge. E3 Clean Technologies, based in Athens,Ohio, is in the process of producing GreenBoxes, the brainchild of company founder Gerri Botte.
Botte, director and founder of the Center for Electrochemical Energy Research, or CEER, at Ohio University, has developed the technology for a machine that uses wastewater to produce energy and clean water. It sends an electrical current through urine, isolating the hydrogen in urine for use in fuel cells.
Though it varies in size based on intended use, the GreenBox is a metal cube with tubes and wires extending from various parts of it. A one-kilowatt unit can power a commercial building with 300 employees, Botte said.
The research and development of the GreenBox happens in the labs of CEER. Once the kinks have been worked out, the technology is sent to E3 to be produced.
The product can be used in a variety of industries, including agriculture. If installed on a large farm with livestock, wastewater collected in a lagoon or tank would be pumped into a GreenBox. A voltage would be applied to remove ammonia and urea, if they were present. The ammonia would then be broken into nitrogen, hydrogen and water. The hydrogen would then collected and sent to a fuel cell.
“You have urine, you send it through a chain, you remove the ammonia and urea and what comes out I like to call ‘orange Gatorade,’” Botte said.
The remaining liquid, which contains salts, magnesium, phosphates and possibly bacteria can become potable water once it is purified.
Using similar technology, Botte and her team have also developed a GreenBox that can help reduce air pollution. The Selective Catalytic Reduction GreenBox reduces nitrogen oxide, which is responsible for smog. The SCR Greenbox also produces hydrogen and creates carbon dioxide as a byproduct. It has future use in cars as well as power plants.
The SCR GreenBox is revolutionary for cars because it can convert urea into ammonia. Urea is safer to transport. The carbon dioxide created from the reaction is stored as potassium carbonate. As a result, less carbon dioxide is released into the air.
Though no GreenBoxes will be sold until they are certified by the Environmental Protection Agency and demonstrated to the public, Botte said many investors are clamoring for the urine-powered cubes. Among the possible investors is the U.S. Department of Defense.
The research team at OU consists of approximately seven people, said Alex Miller, an OU graduate with a degree in chemical engineering. This includes doctoral students, post-doctoral students and engineers who create the catalysts for the GreenBox technology.
“I love being part of an organization that is going to change the world,” Miller said. “That’s what I’m here for.”
Changing the world was Botte’s intention when she began her work as a researcher.
“When you begin research, ideally you try to have a solution to a problem,” Botte said.
Her goal was to work with fuel cells in hopes of making contributions to alternative energy and a cleaner environment.
However, fuel cells are are expensive to produce due to the use of exotic materials, such as iridium and platinum. They typically use hydrogen, which is difficult to gather and store because it moves easily through materials. Hydrogen can be removed from water, but the process takes a lot of energy.
In 2002, Botte was suddenly hit by an idea: urine power. Urine that humans produce every day contains urea and ammonia, which contain hydrogen. If an electric current is sent through those compounds, the hydrogen can be separated through a process called electrolysis and then used as fuel. Thus, the GreenBox was born.
Botte is anxious for the technology to take off.
“The hope is that, in terms of any researcher, you want to see your technology out there,” she said as she gestured out her window to the Lausche Heating Plant behind Stocker Center. “One day I will open my window and one of the GreenBoxes will be attached there.”