Energy

This Portable Generator Produces Power and Clean Water From Human Waste

The technology could help reduce the spread of infectious disease in regions lacking sewage systems, and also help in recovery efforts after disasters.

The USF-developed NEWgenerator will soon be installed in Durban, South Africa. It generates nutrients, energy, and water by safely recovering them from wastewater. | University of South Florida
The USF-developed NEWgenerator will soon be installed in Durban, South Africa. It generates nutrients, energy, and water by safely recovering them from wastewater. | University of South Florida

Brazilian favelas, Indian slums, South African townships, and other crowded, impoverished regions of the developing world often sport electricity, mobile phone networks, and running water.

But few enjoy the salubrious benefits of sewers.

That’s because running power lines, erecting cell towers and digging wells are relatively easy tasks compared to laying underground pipes that connect to expensive wastewater treatment plants.

“You start out with a massive, expensive infrastructure and connect basically everyone’s toilet to it,” Daniel Yeh, an environmental engineer at the University of South Florida, told Seeker.

Now Yeh and other researchers at the Tampa-based school believe they have a replacement for the open-air ditches and flowing human waste that contributes to the spread cholera and other diseases.

With the help of $1.24 million in funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Yeh and his colleagues have created a miniature water treatment plant called NEWgenerator that recycles human waste into water for irrigation and biogas for energy.

Also outfitted with solar panels, the device — around the size of a walk-in freezer — could provide portable, affordable, sustainable sewage systems for urban and rural areas that lack them today.

Yeh called the machine an “anaerobic membrane bioreactor.”

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Conventional wastewater treatment plants use bacteria that require lots of oxygen to clean sewage, a costly, energy intensive process that results in clean water and carbon dioxide emissions.

The NEWgenerator uses a super-fine filter to clarify wastewater and organisms that do not need oxygen. They clean the water but produce methane as a byproduct. The machine then converts the methane into biogas, a fuel that resembles natural gas.

The device isn’t a scientific breakthrough, Yeh said. It’s more an advance in engineering.

“We didn’t invent teleportation or anything that didn’t exist,” he said. “Everything we put together we bought online or off the shelf. But nobody has put it together and got it to work in a way we did. Probably because nobody was naïve enough to do it.”

Yeh and his team tested a NEWgenerator in India last year. Connected to toilets — India has launched a campaign to eradicate open-air defecating — the device serviced around 100 people and produced almost 400 gallons of water a day, Yeh said.

With the Gates funding, he hoped to expand the technology to accommodate 1,000 people per day and recycle more than 2,600 gallons daily in a second field test in Durban, South Africa.

The South African NEWgenerator will also be attached to a “community ablution block,” or a shipping container that holds toilets, showers and sinks. The device will supply those amenities with water and energy.

Government-installed Community Ablution Blocks, pictured here, contain toilets, showers, and sinks. The NEWgenerator allows them to operate without being connected to the sewage system. | University of South Florida

Yeh envisions other uses for the NEWgenerators. They could be deployed in the wake of natural disasters that knock out public utilities, like the recent hurricanes in Puerto Rico, Texas, and Florida, he said. The military could use them in far-flung posts.

But his immediate goal was ending the public health crisis stemming from untreated wastewater. Every 15 seconds, a child dies from unsafe drinking water and poor sanitation, he said, citing UNICEF statistics.

“It’s a professional responsibility to do this,” said Yeh. “If we have something that can help contribute to solving a problem and we don't do it, that’s immoral.”

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