Bill Gates shares his experience of watching human waste being treated and having a glass of “delicious drinking water” recycled from the waste.
“I watched the piles of faeces go up the conveyer belt and drop into a large bin. They made their way through the machine – getting boiled and treated. A few minutes later, I took a long taste of the end result: a glass of delicious drinking water.
The occasion was a tour of a facility that burns human waste and produces water and electricity (plus a little ash). I have visited a lot of similar sites, like power plants and paper mills, so when I heard about this one – it is part of the Gates Foundation’s effort to improve sanitation in poor countries – I was eager to check it out. The water tasted as good as any I have had out of a bottle. And having studied the engineering behind it, I would happily drink it every day. It is that safe.
A shocking number of people, at least two billion, use latrines that are not properly drained. Others simply defecate out in the open. The waste contaminates drinking water for millions of people, with horrific consequences: Diseases caused by poor sanitation kill some 700,000 children every year, and they prevent many more from fully developing mentally and physically.
If we can develop safe, affordable ways to get rid of human waste, we can prevent many of those deaths and help more children grow up healthy.
One idea is to reinvent the toilet. Another idea is to reinvent the sewage treatment plant. The project is called the Omniprocessor, and it was designed and built by Janicki Bioenergy, an engineering firm based north of Seattle, funded by Bill Gates Foundation. The Omniprocessor is a safe repository for human waste. Today, in many places without modern sewage systems, truckers take the waste from latrines and dump it into the nearest river or the ocean – it often ends up in the water supply. If they took it to the Omniprocessor instead, it would be burned safely. The machine runsat such a high temperature (1000oC) that there’s no nasty smell; in fact it meets all the emissions standards set by the US government.
Some modern sewage plants just turn the waste into solids that are stored in the desert. Others burn it using diesel or some other fuel that they buy, which makes them impractical in most poor countries. While the Omniprocessor through the ingenious use of a steam engine, produces more than enough energy to burn the next batch of waste. In other words, it powers itself, with electricity to spare. The next-generation processor, more advanced than the one I saw, will handle waste from 100,000 people, producing up to 86,000 liters of potable water a day and a net 250kw of electricity.
Founder Peter Janicki and his family have travelled to Africa and India multiple times to see the scope of the problem. Our goal is to make the processors cheap enough that entrepreneurs in low- and middleincome
countries will want to invest in them and then start profitable wastetreatment businesses.
We still have a lot to learn before we get to that point. The next step is the pilot project; later this year, Janicki will set up an Omniprocessor in Dakar, Senegal, where they’ll study everything from how you connect with the local community (the team is already working with leaders there) to how you pick the most convenient location. They will also test one of the coolest things I saw on my tour: a system of sensors and webcams that will let Janicki’s engineers control the processor remotely and communicate with the team in Dakar so they can diagnose any problems that come up.
If things go well in Senegal, we’ll start looking for partners probably in India, where there are lots of entrepreneurs who could own and operate the processors, as well as companies with the skill to manufacture many of the parts.
I’m excited about the business model. The processor would not just keep human waste out of the drinking water; it would turn waste into a commodity with real value in the market place. It’s the ultimate example of that old expression: one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”
Sourced from Gatesnotes