Talk about renewable energy — a group of Australian researchers want to turn your pee into a nationwide fertiliser.
The UTS-led Australian Research Council Hub for Nutrients in a Circular Economy is undergoing a new $3.8m initiative to make the national wastewater industry more sustainable. Using what they call “fertiliser-drawn forward osmosis technology”, Professor Hokyong Shon and his team essentially take wasteful liquids — like urine, saline groundwater, and water from mine sites — and, by extracting it from its source, convert it into a renewable liquid fertiliser and usable source of water.
“Today’s wastewater systems treat urine as a polluting by-product rather than a valuable source of nutrients that can be recycled. The challenge is to find ways to process and recycle these nutrients at scale in our cities and building developments,” Professor Hokyong Shon, ARC NiCE Hub Director and Deputy Director of the UTS Centre for Technology in Water and Wastewater, said in a UTS newsroom post.
“For the first time in Australia, our collaboration will take a holistic approach to tackling these challenges and create a working circular economy. We want to demonstrate a business model for how the technology and processes will work at scale in large city precincts.”
Essentially, FDFO technology “uses a concentrated fertiliser solution as the draw to extract water from the impaired water source, such as saline groundwater in the Murray–Darling [or urine]. The diluted fertiliser solution produced by this process can then be used as irrigation water – as ‘fertigation’ – for crops.”
“Osmosis is the natural phenomenon by which all plants transport water within living cells. Forward osmosis is an engineered version of this natural phenomenon with the aim of recovering useable water,” Prof Shon explained.
Sure, it sounds gross but it could have a massive impact on water systems not just in Australian agriculture and city living but across the world. It’s low-cost and low-energy and has already been tested in the Murray-Darling Basin, an Aussie mine site, and Sydney’s Royal Botanic Garden.
The Federal Government is investing $2m into the project over the next four years, while the remaining $1.8m comes from the five Australian universities involved, as well as international research collaborators and 13 commercial and government partners.
Professor Shon and his collaborator Dr. Sherub Phunsho came up with the process 10 years ago, when local farmers protested against a new water management plan for the Murray-Darling Basin and after the South Australian Millennium Drought in the 2000s. The Millennium Drought was the worst the country has seen since European colonisation 200 years ago. It’s been bested by the 2019 droughts, however, reminding us just how pressing of an issue water is here.
Earlier this year, CSIRO data showed that the Murray-Darling Basin had a massive drop in rainfall over the last 20 years, with average inflows dropping by nearly half of what they were on average in the 20th century.
“Through this collaboration, we’re going to demonstrate how our urine-separation technology works in two buildings and then use the resulting liquid fertiliser in field trials in urban agriculture and parklands,” Prof Shon added.
“This is a world-first business model for separating urine and building a circular economy with the by-products.”
The science is right: it’s time we all get on the piss.