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Urine bricks make a splash in South Africa

These bio-bricks could be the building blocks of the future.

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One day, when nature calls, your urine could be put to better use than to be flushed down the loo.

Instead it could be a key ingredient in the construction of a greener office or new home.

In one of the latest innovations in the search for eco-friendly building materials, South African university researchers have created bricks using human urine.

The first of their kind in the world, the bio-bricks hold out the prospect of a sustainable alternative to standard clay and concrete bricks, they hope.

The prototypes have been “grown” from urine using a technique somewhat similar to the natural formation of seashells, taking six to eight days to form.

The groundbreaking invention is the brainchild of two University of Cape Town students and a lecturer.

With a grant from a government-run Water Research Council, the feasibility study was launched last year using synthetic urea. And then the study escalated to using human urine.

“I was always curious to know why don’t we use urine to do the same thing,” Dyllon Randall, the lecturer who supervised one of the two students, told AFP.

“The simple answer is: ‘Yes, we can’.”

A year later they successfully produced their first bio-brick in a laboratory.

Using a natural process known as microbial carbonate precipitation, they mix urine, sand and bacteria to make the brick.

The research is still in its early days. So far, it requires up to 30 litres (eight US gallons) of urine to make just one brick — with the urine provided by male students at the university via a special urinal.

“We basically made the first bio-brick from real urine,” Randall said.

“This process is amazing because essentially what we’ve done is we grew bricks at room temperature.”

The first three bricks are on display. They are grey weighty blocks and indistinguishable from any standard limestone.

Suzanne Lambert, a civil engineering Masters student, marvels at how the team copied “nature’s natural processes” to create a sustainable way of building.

“This process mimics the way coral is formed and the natural processes produce a cement,” she said. 

Conventional bricks or clay-fired bricks are manufactured in kilns, where they are dried at 1,400 degrees Celsius (2,500 degrees Fahrenheit), a process that causes large emissions of carbon dioxide.

In contrast, the bio-brick is “grown” through loose sand seeded with bacteria that produce an enzyme called urease.

The urease reacts with the urea in urine to produce a cement-like compound that bonds with the sand.

The product can be moulded into any shape and dries at ambient temperatures — no ovens, no greenhouse-gas emissions. 

“We take something that is considered a waste stream such as urine and use it in a completely sustainable process,” said Randall.

And for those concerned about the odour of urine permeating from the walls, the good news is that the brick does not smell. The strong ammonia smell that comes from urine dissipates after a few days of drying.

Fellow researcher Vukheta Mukhari said the strength of the brick can be tailored to specific building requirements but the ones they have produced so far are “as strong as common bricks you find on the market”. 

Bio-bricks are already manufactured in the US, but they use synthetic forms of urine.

These, though, are the first to use natural human waste.

Will the bio-brick one day supplant standard clay or concrete counterparts? 

The key factor is price, but at this very early stage of development there has been no attempt to research costs.

“We are still far from actually commercialising this as a full scale system,” Randall cautioned, but said there was plenty of scope for gains in efficiency.

“At the moment we need between 20 to 30 litres to make one standard brick. That does sound like a lot, but remember that about 90 percent of urine is actually water,” said Randall. 

“We are looking at reducing the amount of urine we are requiring to make one brick, and I’m sure within the next few years will have much better results”.

© Agence France-Presse

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East Africa News & Stories

Internet blackout hits cities in Ethiopia

An investigation found that with the exception of the capital Addis Ababa, most of the country’s cities had no internet.

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Internet blackout hits cities in Ethiopia

Most of Ethiopia was without internet access on Tuesday on the eighth consecutive day of an unexplained break.

An investigation found that with the exception of the capital Addis Ababa, most of the country’s cities had no internet.

Cherer Aklilu, executive director of the state monopoly Ethio Telecom, declined to give any details to explain the break.

“We expect to release an official statement on the internet blackout before the end of this week and we urge our users to be patient until that time,” she told AFP.

Internet access was cut on June 11, briefly restored and then severed again. It was restored for the Addis area on Friday.

The cut is the longest since reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to office in April last year in the Horn of Africa country.

The current break coincides with annual school-leaving exams, which end on Friday. In 2017, the authorities defended a similar blackout by saying they wanted to limit cheating for the important tests.

However, the internet was also repeatedly cut between 2015 and 2017 when the government at the time faced waves of protests.

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Africa News & Updates

Morocco’s sale of 8% stake in Maroc Telecom to inject $920 million into state budget

52.74 million shares, priced at 127 dirhams will be sold as a block order to local institutional investors

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MAROC TELECOM STORE | Maroc Telecom has been sold by the Moroccan government

Morocco says it plans to sell off an 8 percent stake in Maroc Telecom, which will lead to an 8.87 billion dirham boost towards financing the country’s budget. This privatisation programme is aimed at improving state financing according to the Morocco capital market regulator, AMMC.

Another 6 percent stake in the company comprising of 52.74 million shares, priced at 127 dirhams will be sold as a block order to local institutional investors such as retirement funds, insurance companies and banks on June 17, according to the prospectus.

Related: Digital colonialism: The price Africa pays for cheap internet

The remaining 2 percent will be sold on the Casablanca stock exchange in a public offering at a share price of 125 dirhams starting on June 26 and closing on July 5 2019.

The 2 percent stake also includes 2.9 million shares, representing 0.3% of Maroc Telecom’s capital, to be sold to the company’s employees at a share price of 117.7 dirhams, the prospectus showed.

The sale will cut the state’s stake in the company to 22% from the current 30%. Maroc Telecom is listed on both the Casablanca stock exchange and the Euronext exchange in Paris.

Related: Formula One in talks to make African comeback

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East Africa News & Stories

An app is helping reunite South Sudan’s ‘lost’ children with their families

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south sudan
Young South Sudanese refugees are transported from the border of South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to a refugee settlement site

A new app launched in South Sudan on Friday aims to help aid workers reunite thousands of children with their families after they became separated during a five-year war and identify other vulnerable children.

The app was developed by the United Nations children’s agency (UNICEF) and the charity Save the Children to allow the hundreds of field workers tracing families in South Sudan to share information on their phones or tablets.

“Case workers are the backbone of everything we do. They walk for hours and hours under the scorching sun, wade through mud, travel for days on bumpy dirt roads to knock on doors,” said Rama Hansraj, head of Save the Children in South Sudan.

“They are in every corner of South Sudan, yet until now have found it difficult to communicate with other case workers on the other side of the country. With this new app, we’re bringing their work into the 21st century.”

South Suda has been ravaged by civil war since 2013 after clashes erupted between troops loyal to President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar.

The government signed a peace agreement with rebels in September, but the war has had a devastating impact. At least 50,000 people have been killed and one in three South Sudanese have been uprooted from their homes.

Children have borne the brunt of the violence, said aid workers, with more than 19,000 registered as missing, unaccompanied or separated from their families.

While more than 6,000 children have been reunited with their families, thousands are still living with temporary foster families or in care centres.

Many were abducted by armed factions to be used as child soldiers, informants or porters. Others were separated from their parents after an attack on their villages.

Some separated children are also migrants from poor families forced to look for work, or runaways who were facing physical or sexual abuse at home, said aid workers.

Child protection case workers – who come from various charities as well as the government – will now be able to directly input data on separated children into the app so that other field workers can easily access it.

The app is connected to a database featuring children’s pictures and biodata, as well as details on circumstances leading to separation and where their family used to live.

“The app will be vital in a poorly connected South Sudan. It can be synced before the case worker heads out and allows them to access the necessary files while in remote areas,” said Helene Sandbu Ryeng from UNICEF in South Sudan.

The app has photo and sound features, which is crucial – especially when parents and their children have been separated for years, which is often the case in South Sudan, added Ryeng.

It will also help identify minors who need help such as counselling for trauma.

Field workers will be able to input data on their apps, according a level of priority so that it can be quickly followed up by child protection teams based in their offices.

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