To demonstrate some new technology for the developing world, Microsoft founder Bill Gates did something that would make most of us cringe. The philanthropist showed how safe his new human excrement recycling machine is by downing a glass of water extracted from human waste.
Gates has devoted his time and some of his fortune to helping improve the lives of those living in developing nations. His latest endeavor involves a machine, called the Omniprocessor, that takes a sludge of human waste and uses heat to extract then purify the water to provide clean and safe drinking water. Gates’ attention-grabbing demonstration was meant to prove that despite its origins, the drinking water really is safe for human consumption.
Besides extracting water, the new technology can provide much-needed electricity to developing nations. After the water is removed, the remaining dry waste is processed to provide electricity. It burns the waste with no odor and while meeting U.S. emissions standards. At the end of the process, the by-product is some ash which can be used as a fertilizer on local farm fields. Although the machine needs an initial input of energy to heat the waste to about 1,000 degrees Celsius, the steam engine then creates enough energy to power itself for the next steps in the sewage treatment process, with energy to spare.
The benefits to those in developing countries are three-fold. First, the machine provides clean drinking water that is essential for human health. Second, the Omniprocessor provides enough electricity to improve the lives of local residents. Third, the new technology removes unwanted and unsanitary waste from the area, preventing health problems that can be caused by open sewers breeding bacteria.
Some estimate that disease related to poor sanitation kills 700,000 children a year and affects the health of many more. In some countries, about half of hospital patients are there because of illness related to unsanitary drinking water or exposure to open sewage. An estimated 2.5 billion urban dwellers around the world lack adequate sanitation, and many more have their waste processed by sewage treatment plants that would not meet environmental standards.
The machine was designed and built by Seattle-based Janicki Bioenergy. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation held a competition a few years ago to reinvent the toilet for the developing world, called the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge. The Challenge involved creating a toilet that did not require connection to a sewer or water system, that did not need electricity, and cost less than five cents per day to run. The Challenge resulted in the Gates Foundation awarding sixteen grants to inventors around the world. While North American cities have networks of sewer pipes and large sewage treatment facilities, this is not feasible in many countries. The Janicki engineering firm has decided to reinvent the sewage treatment plant, and Janicki Bioenergy’s machine has gained the support of Bill Gates for its potential benefit to improve lives in poorer regions.
Although the current Omniprocessor is a smaller prototype, Gates believes the next generation could process the waste of 100,000 people, about 14 tons of sewage. This could produce 86,000 liters of clean drinking water and 250kw of electricity every day. In addition to helping residents in an area, an entrepreneur could purchase a machine and sell excess energy to the electrical grid for a profit. The technology could even provide jobs to local residents as they monitor and maintain the machinery. Once they hit the market, the sewage processing machines could cost about $1.5 million each.
Representatives from Janicki Bioenergy are set to test the sewage processing machine in the field soon, in Senegal. If all goes well, the residents of developing nations could soon have access to the sanitary conditions that residents of North America take for granted.