Processing human urine to recycle nutrients into fertilizer – Science Nation


[♪] Miles O’Brien:
On this hot summer afternoon outside Brattleboro,
Vermont, farmer Dean Hamilton
has fired up his tractor and is fertilizing
his hay field with human urine. That’s right. Pee. Now I know what you’re thinking,
but it’s not really gross. It’s ultimately about
making our water cleaner and our agriculture
more sustainable. Nancy Love:
I’ve been surprised at how many people actually get beyond
the giggle factor pretty quickly and are willing to listen. Miles O’Brien:
This field has also been fertilized with urine. Kim Nace:
This is a place where we can take a lot
of fertilizer products and test them out. Miles O’Brien:
This lettuce is destined for the lab,
not the market. So too for water samples
they collect from the soil. With support from
the National Science Foundation, environmental engineer
Nancy Love and a team that includes the non-profit
Rich Earth Institute are fine-tuning new methods to recycle urine
into fertilizer. Abe Noe-Hays:
There’s a great quote by Buckminster Fuller
about how pollution is nothing but the resources
that we’re not harvesting and that we allow them
to disperse because we’ve been ignorant
to their value. Miles O’Brien:
Fertilizer is made of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus that require huge amounts
of energy to produce. Urine is full of those
same nutrients, but we literally flush them
down the toilet. Abe Noe-Hays:
What we want to do is we want to fix
two problems at once: create fertilizer
that can then sustain our agriculture at the same time
eliminate waste on the one hand and the need to mine and create
fertilizer on the other hand. Miles O’Brien:
The Rich Earth Institute has been using urine
as fertilizer since 2012. They collect about
7,000 gallons a year, thanks to a loyal group
of dedicated donors. Kim Nace:
We now have people who have some source-separating
toilets in their homes. We also have people
who have 55-gallon barrels where they collect and then
we transport to our farms, and we’ve also got
a large urine depot. Miles O’Brien:
Their method so far has been to pasteurize it
to kill any microbes and then apply it directly
onto hay fields. Now that they’ve partnered
with Love and her team, they’re looking to go
to the next level. Nancy Love:
There are three things we really are trying to do with the urine
in this kind of next phase. We’re trying to concentrate it. We’re trying to apply
technologies to reduce odor, and we’re trying to deal
with trace contaminants like the pharmaceuticals. Miles O’Brien:
The pharmaceuticals issue is an important one that they are working hard
to understand better. Heating up urine kills germs but doesn’t have any effect
on chemicals like drugs that pass through our bodies. Nancy Love:
We know pharmaceuticals are a problem for aquatic
organisms and water systems. It’s debatable about the impact
on human health at very, very low levels. Independent of that,
I think most people would prefer that they not be in their food,
and so we are taking the steps to remove them
from these products. Miles O’Brien:
For Love, this is all about redesigning
our wastewater infrastructure for the 21st century. Too many nutrients in the water
leads to poor water quality by causing hazardous
algal blooms. Nancy Love:
Our water emissions are going into very sensitive water bodies that are vulnerable
to these nutrient loads. We need to change that dynamic,
and if we can capture them and put them
to a beneficial use, that’s what we’re trying to do. Miles O’Brien:
Recycling urine into fertilizer to make agriculture greener
and our waterways cleaner. For Science Nation,
I’m Miles O’Brien.

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