Waste Water

The machine that turns sewage into clean water, electricity - and money.

Sewage goes in; clean water and electricity come out. Unlikely as it sounds, that’s exactly the promise of a new machine that could transform sanitation in the developing world.

The Janicki Omni-processor, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is an attempt to tackle the issue of sanitation from both ends – safe disposal of waste and provision of clean drinking water.

“The Omni-processor turns sewer sludge, which is kind of nasty, into clean drinking water, electricity and ash that’s pathogen-free,” said its creator, Peter Janicki.

The Omni-processor is essentially a steam engine. Human faeces is boiled and the separated water, now steam, is used to generate electricity before being filtered into clean drinking water. The clever part is that the dried faeces left behind after the water is evaporated away is burned as fuel to boil the next load. Once it’s going, all that’s needed is more waste: it actually creates more electricity than it uses.

It’s this self-contained nature that makes it so appealing, as two billion people around the world don’t have access to properly drained latrines. “The sanitation system as we know it in the developed world cannot work in developing countries,” said Doulaye Koné, Senior Program Officer for the Gates Foundation. “What we need in developing countries is a very simple system.”

A pilot programme, able to produce 10,800 litres of drinking water a day, is set to begin next month in Darfur, Senegal.

Key to the success of the project will be the economics of operating it. Not only is it designed to power itself – it pays for itself too.

According to Janicki, “the entrepreneur that owns this processor will get paid for the input, the sludge, and that same entrepreneur will get paid for the outputs: the electricity, the water and the ash.”

Writing on his blog, Bill Gates said: “our goal is to make the processors cheap enough that entrepreneurs in low- and middle-income countries will want to invest in them and then start profitable waste-treatment businesses.”

The initial cost of the machine to these local entrepreneurs remains unclear.


This article originally appeared on Science 151 – find it here.