I was talking to some friends about Blood Meridian, a book by Cormac McCarthy which I consider to be one of the best books I’ve ever read, and I was talking about a scene in which the Judge makes gunpowder out of urine. When everyone was confused, I think I said “well yeah, that’s how gunpowder was invented”…then I double backed because I didn’t know if that was true.
I knew that the first chemical element discovered was phosphorous (in 1669 by H. Brand) and it was from a guy who was trying to make gold from his own urine. I then confused this with gunpowder because phosphorus can be ignited (match heads).
Gunpowder is, on the other hand, made from sulfur, charcoal, and potassium nitrate.
Potassium nitrate, or saltpeter, can be made from urine. A nitrogen source, it was used to moisten straw or other organic material, which was kept moist and allowed to rot for several months to over a year. The resulting salts were washed from the heap with water, which was evaporated to allow collection of crude saltpeter crystals, that were usually refined before being used in making gunpowder.
BUT…I don’t think the original invention of gunpowder used saltpeter from urine…more likely from manure.
Anyways, because of these two really interesting facts (first discovery of a chemical element; the fact that it can be used to make gunpowder), I looked up urine on wikipedia and got a whole bunch of other interesting facts:
Urine contains large quantities of nitrogen (mostly as urea), as well as significant quantities of dissolved phosphates and potassium, the main macronutrients required by plants. Diluted at least 8:1 with water it can be applied directly to soil as a fertilizer. Undiluted, it can chemically burn the roots of some plants, but it can be safely used as a source of complementary nitrogen in carbon rich compost. Urine typically contains 70% of the nitrogen and more than half the phosphorus and potassium found in urban waste water flows, while making up less than 1% of the overall volume. Thus source separation and on-site treatment has been studied in Sweden as a way to partially close the cycle of agricultural nutrient flows, to reduce the cost and energy intensivity of sewage treatment, and the ecological consequences such as eutrophication, resulting from an influx of nutrient rich effluent into aquatic or marine ecosystems. The fertilization effect of urine has been found to be comparable to that of commercial fertilizers with an equivalent NPK rating.
In pre-industrial use as a cleaning fluid due to its ammonia content.
Numerous survival instructors and guides, including the US Army Field Manual, advise against drinking urine for survival. These guides explain that drinking urine tends to worsen, rather than relieve dehydration due to the salts in it, and that urine should not be consumed in a survival situation, even when there is no other fluid available. In hot weather survival situations, where water is also hard to find, soaking cloth in urine (a shirt for example) and putting it on one’s head can help cool the body.
During World War I, the Germans experimented with numerous poisonous gases for use during war. After the first German chlorine gas attacks, Allied troops were supplied with masks of cotton pads that had been soaked in urine. It was believed that the ammonia in the pad neutralized the chlorine. These pads were held over the face until the soldiers could escape from the poisonous fumes, although it is now known that chlorine gas reacts with urine to produce toxic fumes.
Urine has often been used as a mordant to help prepare textiles, especially wool, for dyeing. In Scotland, the process of “walking” (stretching) the tweed is preceded by soaking in urine.
Ancient Romans used human urine to cleanse grease stains from their clothing, before acquiring soaps from the Germans during the first century AD. Urine that has been fermented for the purposes of cleaning is referred to as lant. The emperor Nero instituted a tax (Latin: vectigal urinae) on the urine industry. This tax was continued by Nero’s successor, Vespasian, to whom is attributed the Latin saying Pecunia non olet (money doesn’t smell) – this is said to have been Vespasian’s reply to a complaint from his son about the disgusting nature of the tax. Vespasian’s name is still attached to public urinals in France (vespasiennes), Italy (vespasiani), and Romania (vespasiene).