No one thinks of urine as special. Not even I ever had passed my test with synthetic urine. Everyone pees. It is one of the bodily functions that make us human and is specifically disliked when you’ve had too much to drink and there is no toilet seat in sight.
Quite suddenly, the 19th century came with the scientific opinion about the unique multifunctional properties of urine. It became more than just a waste product: it was an avenue for great riches!
Urine contains urea, also known as carbonyl diamide, a nitrogenous compound and the main waste product of protein in mammals. The discovery of urea was like striking gold because it can be used as a nitrogen source in fertilizers. In fact, more than 90% of the urea made industrially is used in fertilizers nowadays.
Some of the applications that involved urea are:
It is, therefore, not surprising that urine became very special because as far as scientists knew, it was the only way they could make urea. This way of thinking is called vitalism which was founded by Jöns Jakob Berzelius.
Vitalism is the theory that only living beings can produce living products, and that science alone can’t really explain the processes that create living products because there is a vital force that is in living beings that cannot be reproduced. That was as far as the world knew then.
Early in the 19th century, a German chemist named Friedrich Wöhler came across an absolute proof that the theory of vitalism was not particularly true by making synthetic urine – accidentally – while he was trying to make ammonium cyanate!
He had been at his wit’s end for a long time because although he tried very hard and took many dangerous risks, including using lead, all of his experiments led to a dead-end filled with a seemingly useless white powder.
One day, he mixed ammonium hydroxide and lead cyanate and got the white powder again, this time a little different and more purified than the other white powders he’d gotten previously. This time, instead of simply discarding it, he researched and experimented on what it could be – and found out that it was synthetic urine.
This amazing feat freed up the rest of the world from treasuring their urine and storing up their pet’s urine – factories could just manufacture synthetic urine, and the smelly less-than-great pee storage process could be stopped! It is no wonder that this discovery bagged Wöhler the Copley Medal, and though he made other significant contributions to science, it became what he was most known (and appreciated) for.