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Army researcher Anthony J. Roberts adds one gram of aluminum nano powder to urine to release hydrogen from a chemical reaction. Researchers engineering the nano powder at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. (Credit: U.S. Army photo by David McNally, ARL Public Affairs)

Scientists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory observed an unexpected result when combining urine with a newly engineered nano-powder based on aluminum. It instantly releases hydrogen from the urine at a much higher rate than with ordinary water.

The research team announced earlier this summer that a nano-galvanic aluminum-based powder they were developing produced pure hydrogen when coming into contact with water. The researchers observed a similar reaction when adding their powder to any liquid containing 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."

"We have calculated that one kilogram of aluminum powder can produce 220 kilowatts of power in just three minutes," said Dr. Anit Giri, an ARL researcher.

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 is becoming increasingly important to run communications and electronics gear for away teams, which can't be resupplied. Making use of urine as a fuel source may result in tremendous benefits for soldiers, officials said.

"When we demonstrated it with urine, we saw almost a twofold increase in the reaction rates," said ARL researcher Dr. Kristopher Darling. 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.

The team is working 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.

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