Let There Be Light: What a Urine-Powered Lightbulb Means for Women in Refugee Camps

Back in 2008, the Gates Foundation announced its Grand Challenges program with a $100 million commitment to help encourage scientists and researchers of the world to use their considerable collective brain power to solve the world’s biggest health challenges.

The challenge was and remains, open to everybody in all disciplines. Awarded in phases, winners of the first phase are awarded initial grants of $100,000 up to two times a year. If their work shows substantial promise, phase one winners were eligible to receive a phase two grant of up to $1 million.

Related: The Coolest Ideas Coming From the Gates Toilet Challenge

A few years ago, the University of West England won a phase one grant, and an additional phase two grant in 2013. The university’s project that showed so much potential has to do with turning urine (yes, pee) into energy to power lightbulbs. Technically, this work is referred to as microbial fuel cells.

The university is already running a prototype bathroom, which sits just outside of a campus pub to ensure it gets plenty of use. Although the microbial fuel cells don’t produce a ton of wattage, it’s enough to power modern LED lights.

Should the prototype be successful (and things seem promising), Oxfam is looking to use the university’s technology to make refugee camps safer for women by first testing the prototype bathroom in South Sudan. Once that proves successful, and if the bathrooms are durable enough, Oxfam plans to mass-manufacture them as a kit for refugee camps.

Refugee camps aren’t safe harbors for anyone really, but for women and girls, camps can be particularly violent. The general lack of security and lighting make it especially for dangerous for females who need to use the bathroom at night.

The installation of microbial-fuel-cell-powered bathrooms sounds like it could be a pricey endeavor. And with refugee funding currently on the downslide (especially in Syria), one that relief agencies can hardly afford. Happily, the university has kept cost in mind with its pee-powered lightbulbs and the estimated price per bathroom is currently around £600 or a little under $900.

The primary goals of Gates’s Grand Challenges is not only to come up with innovative solutions to the most pressing global health problems, but to do so in a way that is affordable. It looks as though the University of West England is firing on all cylinders in that regard. After all, it hardly makes sense to develop a global health solution that is cost prohibitive for the people who need it. 

Related: Gates Foundation: Grants for Global Development