Bill Gates wants your sewage

Sanitation and water treatment in the developing world is set to change with the onset of the Omni Processor. The Bill Gates and Melinda Gates Foundation have decided to invest in a machine that turns sewage into drinking water and can also generate energy.  Just as importantly it is relatively low-cost, making it a technology that can be rolled out quickly in emerging economies.

The first of its kind is already under construction in Senegal’s capital of Dakar, where Janicki - the company designing and building the machines - was given a go-ahead to run a test. Bill Gates has even drunk water from it! As shown in this video, Peter Janicki, CEO of Janicki, offers him a Mason jar in which he fetches water from a tap of the prototype machine. Gates then takes a sip and then says "it’s water". This takes place at the Sedro-Woolley in Washington where the machine has successfully converted human wastewater from a local sewerage into clean water. 

The machine is set to convert 14 tons of sewage into potable water using a combination of steam power and water filtration technology. One unit will be able to serve a community of 100,000 people and according to Gates will cost about US$1.5-million. It's their gift to India and other developing nations.  

Bill Gates introduced the Omni Processor on the Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon

Why the developing world?

Half of the patients in hospitals in the developing world are suffering from illnesses and sicknesses related to water and sanitation problems. India alone spends US$54 billion a year, or 6.4 percent of its GDP in correcting or handling these problems, and the conclusion is that these problems place an unnecessary huge burden on developing nations.  It’s a problem that will get worse without new solutions to sanitation – particularly in a number of emerging economies that are undergoing rapid urbanization.

Melinda Gates Foundation offered Janicki a contract to build the Omni Processor back in 2012. This culminated into building the prototype in Sendro-Woolly Washington, which Bill Gates personally visited in November and took a sip. Construction has begun at a plant in Senegal.

Mark van Loosdrecht, a professor of environmental biotechnology at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands has also said the technology could be as efficient as claimed, in theory, but time will tell. Janicki reports that they have begun constructing the S200 model in Washington, alongside the S100 model in Senegal.

Why the Omniprocessor is a Cleanleap

Modern sewerage treatment plants are less efficient and use a lot of power. Additionally, they usually require natural gas to generate enough heat needed to incinerate the wet sludge. Not only are they costly, but also do they release water vapor into the atmosphere. 

One of the reasons modern treatment plants are costly is that they are not profitable - or rather they don't generate anything. The hope is that users will finally sell the power and water generated from the plant. This would turn a liability into an asset – twice over as sludge between a drinkable resource and the by-product is used as an energy-generating resource.

How the technology works

Water from the sewerage is driven into a drier of the Omni Processor. The sludge is boiled to separate water from solid. Water vapor from the drier goes through a cyclone and filters to remove impurities, and further through a course filter and a fine membrane for further purification. The water is then condensed, aerated and then passed through multiple activated charcoal filters. Boiling of sludge produces steam at high temperature and pressure, and this is used to run the steam engine. Power that can be used to run the Omni Processor is then produced from the steam through a generator. Burning sludge solid also produces ash that contains phosphorus and potassium, and these can be used as fertilizer.

The S100 model in Senegal, according to Janicki, will convert 10,800 liters of clean drinking water per day from12.3 cubic meters per day and from this produce 150W of power. It has a footprint of 8m X 23m and a maximum fuel moisture content of 84%. It will kill pathogens and adjust water pH to right quantities so it will be safe for drinking. The water has already been tested against other water sold from the supermarkets and according to Janicki, it either surpasses or meets their standards in properties.  It also measures up to the United States FDA and WHO clean water requirements and these measurements will be expanded to other countries. 

Gates is thinking of this machine as a reinvention to wastewater and sewerage treatment solutions. It is his second major foray into solving sanitation problems - after he invested in an earlier initiative around the reinvention of the toilet.

The Omni Processor will serve as a depository for human waste, to millions who do not have access to proper sewerage facilities. This is considerable given the way developing nations are dealing with sewerage and human waste. Truckers pull the waste from latrines and dump it somewhere and the waste trickle back to rivers and other water facilities causing contamination and disease. Developing nations also treat wastewater and sewerage inefficiently and release it back to rivers. A lot more companies are releasing untreated wastewater into rivers. Even when companies are drying waste they are not ending up with the useful byproducts of the Omniprocessor. The Omniprocessor will not only help provide safe drinking water, but also clean sanitation by eliminating human waste in open places and where people cannot afford better sanitation facilities. It will also free up land used for dumping such waste, for other economic applications, in addition to producing electricity.

UNICEF estimates that 70% of sub-Sahara does not have access to improved sanitation while Oceania and South Asia are at 64% and 59% respectively.  While other regions have water coverage of up to 86%, sub-Saharan Africa has 63% and Oceania only 56%. In addition, people in rural areas have more limited access to improved water and sanitation facilities than urban areas. UNICEF also estimates that developing countries lose £153 billion annually - constituting 1.5% of their GDP - due to Poor water and sanitation. After signing the UN’s Millennium Development Goals in 2000, the organization says that the sanitation target for 2015 is far from being met in sub-Saharan African and could wait for another 150 years.

Poor access to water and sanitation largely affects schools in the developing world, where over half the population is affected. Children are often the most impacted. In Africa alone, 40 billion hours are spent every year in going to fetch water. Also, in sub-Sahara Africa, Diarrhea is third biggest killer of children under five years. By increasing water available for use, the plant will save lives and see that the hours are spent on other economic activities.

How does it compare with other technologies in the field?

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation settled on this solution since it would advance their previously launched Water, Sanitation & Hygiene program for developing countries. In comparison to other technologies, its greatest point of differentiation is in relation to energy.  It is a self-powering plant, which many would agree is a first in a world where power is costly and supply not enough. Its great energy conservation is immense and will help reduce carbon emissions. Still, it spares some power for distribution.  In April this year, the outstanding innovation was nominated for GeekWire Innovation of the Year Award.

Many of the similar technologies identified and which could convert human excreta into energy and nutrient products do not compete effectively with the Omni Processor which functions as an integrated solution.  This model makes it perfect many of our Cleanleap countries in the developing world as it does not place an extensive burden on electricity, water, and sewers. Water Environmental Research Foundation found out that, although twelve technologies out of 50 selected met the criteria, the Omni offered a better promise than all. Its coupled technologies that finally convert excreta into energy and soil improvement nutrients are the most promising. In addition, it enables bioconversion that is more effective than many thermal based solutions, since the latter are difficult to apply in small scale in developing world.   This all adds up to provide a solution that we can truly call a Cleanleap and all eyes look to the trials in Senegal to see how well the solution could work.