Waste to fuel facilities are nothing new–in the past few years, we’ve seen chicken poop-powered fuel cell plants, a scheme to use astronaut poop for fuel in space, and a town that’s converting wastewater sludge into thermal energy. But now, occasional clean energy cheerleader Bill Gates is taking an interest in the technology–and that means it may start getting more attention.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently awarded Columbia University professor Kartik Chandran a $1.5 million grant to develop a “Next-Generation Urban Sanitation Facility” in Accra, Ghana along with Waste Enterprisers (a private American-led, Ghanaian company) and the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology. The facility, which has not yet been built, will turn organic compounds from fecal sludge into biodiesel and methane (two energy sources).
Some 2.1 million city dwellers around the world depend on non-piped solutions to their sewage needs. That is to say, their waste is going into septic tanks, storage devices, or just being dumped directly into the water supply. All that fecal matter in the water–especially in places that also lack water treatment facilities–generates an incredible amount of waterborne illness.
If Chandran’s project comes to fruition, it will both provide a cheap source of fuel in an energy-poor region and minimize the amount of fecal sludge that ends up in local bodies of water. “By training tomorrow’s engineers in sustainable approaches to ‘resource
and energy recovery’ rather than ‘wastewater treatment,’ a sea-change
can be achieved in the way we perceive of and manage human waste. In
fact, the term ‘wastewater’ is already archaic. Wastewater is, after
all, just water with a different chemical and biological composition,” explained Chandran in a statement.
We’ll probably hear about more human waste to biofuel plants in the developing world in the near future. And hopefully, that will at least begin to cut down on the 1.8 million people who die each year from water-transmitted diseases like cholera.