Contaminated water continues to be a leading cause of infant and child mortality, and by 2025, an estimated 1.8 billion people will be living in regions with absolute water scarcity. With massive water shortages and waste management challenges in the Global South, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation saw an opportunity to inspire innovation with a challenge: to locally and cost-effectively convert sewage into a clean water source.
Out of this challenge emerged a clear front-runner, Janicki Bioenergy’s OmniProcessor, a low-cost treatment plant capable of converting sewage into 860 litres of clean water and 250 kilowatts of electricity every day.
How it Works
With financial support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the first OmniProcessor S100 prototype plant was established in Sedro-Wooley, Washington. The machine runs at 1000 degrees Celsius, a temperature hot enough to kill all pathogens and noxious odours. Using a combination of steam power and water filtration, clean water is produced and left over solid waste and is burned into electricity used to help power the machine. Remaining non-toxic solid material can also be used as soil fertilizer.
According to WIRED Magazine, “the hope is that [the OmniProcessor] will turn the nasty business of sewage processing from a cost centre into a profits centre, with operators—local governments or philanthropic entrepreneurs—charging for the electricity and water produced by the machine.”
One OmniProcessor machine costs 1.5 million dollars and can provide enough water for a community of 100,000 people. At only a fraction of the cost of a traditional waste treatment plant, this low-cost, energy-efficient initiative is obviously worthy of attention. But will it work in the Global South?
Taking it Global
Last month, the Janicki Bioenergy team launched a pilot project in Dakar, Senegal. This will be the first use of the machine in a low-resource country and is expected to provide insights into working with local communities and determining the best plant locations. Janicki also plans to test a sensor and webcam system that would enable its engineers to remotely control the machine and easily communicate with the Dakar team to asses and resolve issues.
Despite huge potential for the Global South, critics argue there some key issues with the machine left to be resolved. The OmniProcessor converts sewage sludge – the semi-solid by-product of sewage – into clean water but in many African and Asian cities, waste water is often not collected in sewers let alone treated, so little to no sewage sludge is actually produced. This places pretty significant restrictions on where the machine could be effectively used.
The Taste Test
In addition to being safe to drink, the water produced by the OmniProcessor tastes normal. According to Bill Gates, “it tastes as good as anything I’ve drunk out of a bottle,” he says. “And having studied the engineering behind it, I would happily drink it every day. It’s that safe.” Gates was so convinced of it he even put Jimmy Fallon to the test during an appearance on his show in January (watch the interview here).