Image Credit: Gatesnotes.com
How appealing does drinking poop water sound? Your answer is not very likely, and if offered a glass you would say no. But for 750 million people in the world today, that is a question answered every day as communities collect their water from rivers or streams where sewage has contaminated the water. The cause of this problem is 2.5 billion people lack access to adequate sanitation facilities. Additionally, 2 billion people use toilets connected to septic tanks which are improperly emptied into areas where water contamination can occur. The World Economic Forum ranks the water crisis as being the number 1 risk currently facing society. Its apparent in all our lives that clean water is important which is why Bill Gates, one of the world’s most widely recognized innovators and philanthropists, wants us to say yes to the poop water question.
In emergency preparedness literature, they explain that if your home is connected to a municipal water source you could drink from the water tank (not from the bowl) on your toilet if absolutely necessary. After all, the water entering your toilet is the same water you get from your faucet. Think about that for a moment. Our toilet water is cleaner than the waterways that 750 million people access to drink. If those people had the same quality water going into our bathrooms, we could prevent an estimated 700,000 child deaths every year.
When thinking about where we get our drinking water it is important to know that 2.5% of total water on Earth is freshwater, with less than 1% of that being readily accessible to humans. With news reports focused on lingering droughts and ever increasing demand for resources, safe water becomes all the more important. For many countries who can’t afford the infrastructure to control the flow of waste and fresh water, a need for new solutions are required using practical technologies that are both cost effective and efficient.
Fueling the Future of Sanitation
Sewage contains 20% biomass and about 80% water. Now imagine a machine that burns biomass as fuel. In this machine raw sewage is dried. The resulting sludge is boiled to separate out the water. As the process continues, an incinerator burns the remaining solids to produce high-temperatures and high-pressure steam which drives an engine to generates electricity which in turn runs the machine. The resulting water vapor is then filtered to remove additional substances. The by-product of this entire process is purified drinking water, excess power for use in local communities, and ash that can be used as fertilizer. That is exactly how Janicki Bioenergy’s Omni Processor works, and it is being pioneered by Microsoft creator Bill Gates. You might have seen Bill’s appearance on Jimmy Fallon where he challenged the Tonight Show host to pick and drink one of two glasses of water then guess whether it came from a bottle or was poop water, a term coined to bring attention to the concept of converting sewage to safe drinking water in about 5 minutes. After Bill and Jimmy each downed a glass it was revealed both were filled with water sourced from the omni processor located in Sedro-Woolley, Washington, where the prototype is currently located.
For Bill Gates, the pursuit to reinvent how we deal with waste began in 2011 when the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation challenged eight universities to the Toilet Challenge. Each university was given $400,000 to develop a toilet that: Removes harmful waste and recovers resources such as energy, water and nutrients; operates ‘off the grid'; costs less than 5 cents per day; promotes sustainable and financially profitable sanitation services; and is a next-generation product that both the wealthy and developing nations want to use. Each university approached the challenge in unique ways. For example, The California Institute of Technology (who won the top prize) used solar panels to power an electro-chemical reaction that breaks down waste and stores excess energy for night-time operation.
While new toilet technology can reduce the harmful effects of waste, it didn’t solve the infrastructure problem many countries face. Bill Gates and his team at Janicki Bioenergy are betting on the success of the omni processor as it aims to meet the needs in both rural and urban environments. The first prototype, the S100, is a proof of concept that costs about $1.5 million, significantly less than sewer lines and processing plants. The machine is capable of handling sewage for a community of 100,000 people and produces 2,800 gallons of drinking water and between 100 and 250 Kw net electricity per day. Each machine requires only one or two operators at any given time and could pay for itself by selling excess electricity and fertilizer. A second prototype, the S200, will processes around 7 times more sewage while only being 20% bigger in size.
The Clean Water Conclusion
It is said that for every $1 invested into better sanitation, $5 in social and economic benefits are created through the reduction of healthcare costs and increased productivity. This is especially true for women and children who spend an estimated 140 million hours a day searching for and collecting water. Economic benefits are great but saving lives is better. Cutting down on disease and making clean water less scarce presents new opportunities to parts of the world struggling to meet their most basic needs.
The goal is to roll out thousands of omni processors in the near future combined with newer toilet technology to drive community entrepreneurship and innovate the way we currently deal with sewage. Not only in developing countries but within all communities regardless of region or socio-economic status as we look to a sustainable future.
Would I drink poo water? Yes.