In the grandest terms, Alexandria Gagnon’s research is about big problems like feeding mankind.
More specifically, it is about urine. Lots and lots of urine. Urine that Gagnon gets to study in its purest form — just as it was at the point of release, albeit more settled — because of a bathroom set-up at a Virginia Beach office building unlike any other in the United States.
The building, on Air Rail Avenue near Norfolk International Airport, is the new headquarters for the Hampton Roads Sanitation District. The two-story facility was designed so its 271 employees can, if they choose, keep their liquids separate from their solids via six special urinals for men, one odd-looking toilet for women and urine-only pipes that lead to an underground outdoor well.
Gagnon, known as “the pee queen” to some of the people who contribute to her work, visits that well once a month to pump the pool of collected urine into a 285-gallon tank on the back of a pickup. She then drives that truck to a treatment plant in Suffolk to conduct her research.
HRSD began collecting pee in March.
“We currently have 1,700 gallons of urine stored in containers,” Gagnon said.
It will be used to test how phosphorus, in the form of a mineral called struvite, can be recovered from liquid human waste for use in agricultural fertilizers. The hope is to find a sustainable replacement for the earth’s supply of phosphate rock, which HRSD says is projected to be depleted by around 2100.
Gagnon, a research intern from Virginia Tech, is pursuing her master’s degree with the work. One of her first tasks was to educate employees at the sanitation district about the project and how they can help.
For men, the deal is pretty straight-forward. They simply go in a urinal that looks much like any other. The ones installed at HRSD’s headquarters don’t use water; instead, a special liquid that stays hidden below the urinal’s surface pushes the incoming stream down the drain.
“It’s actually easier” for men because there’s no flushing, Gagnon said.
Their female coworkers must make more of an effort. The building has two bathrooms for women and multiple toilets in each, but only one lets the user donate to the cause.
That toilet is on the second floor and has visual instructions. Its bowl is split into two compartments. A diagram on the stall door shows users where to do what.
Gagnon said the response from HRSD’s employees about the project has been “very positive.”
“They tell me when they use the toilet,” she said.
The HRSD facility is the only office building in the country that is set up to isolate and collect urine, according to Gagnon and Diana Aga, a researcher at the University at Buffalo who is doing related work. Some buildings in Europe do it as well.
HRSD’s foray into the field was prompted by Charles Bott, the agency’s director of water technology and research. He had been following urine separation projects in Sweeden and Switzerland and became intrigued about the potential for more cost-effective wastewater treatment, as well as the application to the work HRSD was already doing with struvite at one of its plants.
“The construction of a new main office building seemed like a perfect opportunity,” he said by email.
Incorporating urine separation into a building at the design stage is cheaper than retro-fitting it into an existing building. It cost HRSD about an extra $5,000 in additional expenses, including the separate piping and women’s toilet, according to the agency.
Meanwhile, the agency estimates it saves about $500 to $2,500 a year in utilities thanks to its waterless urinals.
Water conservation and the public cost of treating sewage are also motivating HRSD’s research.
Between 1.6 gallons and 3.6 gallons of drinking-quality water (depending on the toilet) are flushed for every 1/8th gallon of urine, according to HRSD. That equates to about 4,000 gallons of water per person per year, it says. The average American uses the restroom six times a day, five of which are for urinating only, according to an info sheet distributed by the agency.
And urine, while making up only about 1 percent of wastewater, contributes about 80 percent of the nitrogen and 45 percent of the phosphate in it. That contaminated water is treated at plants like those belonging to HRSD, at a high cost to taxpayers. Capturing urine before it gets into the wastewater stream would reduce treatment costs.
The idea is not expected to spread to large-scale, city-wide applications, however. It would be prohibitively expensive for governments to rebuild extensive networks of pipes and mains that have always carried human wastes together.
Researchers believe urine diversion and collection would be more feasible on a building-by-building approach in new construction, if the work from the likes of Gagnon and others leads to real applications for the by-product.
In Vermont, for example, lettuce and carrots are being grown with struvite made from urine, as well as with disinfected urine itself, to measure if pharmaceuticals in that urine — passed through by humans’ use of medications — is transferred to the plant.
Basically, the question is: “Is it safe to use urine on crops?” Gagnon said.
The work at HRSD is part of a larger collaboration with the University of Michigan, the State University of New York at Buffalo, the Rich Earth Institute and engineering firm Brown and Caldwell. Funding has come from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Water Environment Research Foundation.
Jamie Mitchell, chief of technical services at HRSD, said people in her division are pretty excited about their building’s contribution to the science.
Some employees even offer ideas to Gagnon. Robert Davis, a project manager in the IT department, stopped her in a corridor in early October to chat about her work. He told her he was on a trip to western Virginia recently when he thought: What if they could capture all the urine at a rest stop?
Gagnon told Davis that a place in New England has done that.