Earlier this year, Bill Gates made headlines for the oddly captivating feat of drinking water that had been raw sewage just five minutes earlier. Poop water, in other words.
But Gates wasn’t taking on an unsanitary dare; he was publicly demonstrating the quality of a Gates-funded machine, called the Janicki Omni Processor, that turns sewage into electricity, ash, and drinking water. Developed by Janicki Bionenergy, the system can convert 14 tons of sewage into electricity and drinkable water each day.
Now it’s being tested in the real world. Eventually, the system could could help some of the two billion people that lcak proper sanitation to remove pathogen-ridden sewage from their communities.
The first test is happening in Dakar, Senegal, where 1.2 million residents don’t have a connection to a sewer line. As an alternative, they often remove sewage from pit latrines in buckets, placing the waste into holes dug in the ground nearby. It’s an ideal breeding ground for sanitation-related diseases like cholera and typhoid fever.
Mechanical emptying, a process where trucks bring sewage to treatment plants, is better. But until the Omni Processor came along, Dakar didn’t have the technology to get rid of pathogens once sludge arrived at the treatment plants.
The city has now started replacing treatment plants with an Omni Processor, which is treating a third of Dakar’s sludge while removing pathogens and producing useful byproducts in the process. The next version of the machine will be able to handle regular garbage in addition to sewage.
According to the Gates Foundation, the ultimate hope is that “Omni Processors will make it much cheaper to hire trucks, reducing the need for people to handle the waste themselves.”
Janicki shipped the Omni Processer to Dakar this past spring for the pilot project. Gates writes on his blog that it’s “working as predicted” so far, but there are still kinks to contend with.
He writes: “The machine has to be tested — and unlike a computer program, sanitation machines can’t be tested from a desk in Seattle. The real world introduces lots of variables. For example, you have to find the right personnel to run the machine. You have to work with local and national governments and gauge the public’s reaction.”
So far, Dakar’s government appears to be on board. That’s the first step. Next, Janicki needs to work on making the machine even better — including making it both smaller and cheaper (The first model costs $US1.5 million, and an upcoming commercially available model of the processor costs between $US2 and $US4 million, according to the Janicki website).
In the meantime, access to Gates Foundation funding — given to Janicki as part of the the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge —
will make scaling up much easier.
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