Scientists at the US Army Research Laboratory have made an unusual discovery during experiments with human urine.
When combining it with a newly engineered nano-powder based on aluminum, researchers found hydrogen was instantly released, at a much higher rate than with water.
Hydrogen, the most plentiful element in the universe, has the potential to power fuel cells and provide energy to future soldiers.
Fuel cells generate electricity quietly, efficiently and without pollution.
According to a Department of Energy's website, fuel cells are "more energy-efficient than combustion engines and the hydrogen used to power them can come from a variety of sources."
Dr. Anit Giri, an ARL researcher, said:
"We have calculated that one kilogram of aluminum powder can produce 220 kilowatts of power in just three minutes."
In space, astronauts recycle waste water and urine because drinking water is a precious commodity. For soldiers in austere environments, there are many precious commodities.
Power and energy are becoming increasingly important to run communications and electronics gear for away teams, which can't be resupplied.
And making use of urine as a fuel source could result in tremendous benefits for soldiers.
"When we demonstrated it with urine, we saw almost a twofold increase in the reaction rates," Dr. Kristopher Darling, an ARL researcher said. "We were very excited. As a group we have been pushing for the last few months on developing the efficiency and the reaction kinetics to try to get them faster."
The team is still investigating why urine causes a faster reaction, but it may have something to do with the electrolytes and the acidity of the liquid.
"It's unique because the rate of the reaction is so efficient and extremely rapid from such a small volume of material," Darling said.
The team is working closely with other researchers at the laboratory, including the Sensors and Electron Devices Directorate, to discover how to harness the material as a potential energy source. Darling said:
"It was a spontaneous finding. We weren't expecting to develop this material specifically for hydrogen production. It was a group effort. We came together as a team to understand the importance of the discovery. This has great potential for benefiting soldiers."
In a statement, Dr. Philip Perconti, the laboratory director, said the discovery "may find great utility for forward deployed troops who need a compact and lightweight energy source."
In the coming months, the team will continue to investigate and push the limits of the discovery, to try and understand its implications.