Much progress has been made in pursuit of the Millenium Development Goals. Between 1990 and 2012, an estimated 2.3 billion people gained access to improved drinking water. As a result, at least in part, the number of children dying from associated diarrheal diseases has been slashed from around 1.5 million in 1990 to just over 600,000 in 2012.

While such significant improvements are welcomed, there remains a great deal of work still to be done. The most recent figures from the World Health Organisation indicated that 2.5 billion, roughly a third of the world’s human population, still lack access to improved sanitation. At the same time, one billion people practice open defecation, increasing the risk of disease, and an estimated 1.8 billion people drink water that is faecally contaminated.

Put crudely, the developing world has far too much human excrement and far too little safe drinking water. Help may well be at hand though, with the development of a new type of sewage treatment plant that takes in human waste and uses it to generate electricity and safe drinking water.

Boiling sewage into biomass and drinking water

Developed by Seattle-based engineering group Janicki Industries, the Omni Processor works to break down raw sewage into its constituent parts of water and biomass, using the biomass to boil the water and make it safe to drink. The S100 model, which was funded through a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2013, was originally intended to turn sewer sludge into electricity but was later altered to include a water treatment system.

The process works by boiling the sewage at a temperature of 100 degrees Celsius in a large drying tube to separate it into dry solids and water vapor. The dry solids are then fired to turn water vapour into steam that is used to power a steam engine and generate electricity. Finally, the steam is condensed back into water that is as pure as distilled water. With the electricity generated sufficient to power the cycle, the OmniProcessor offers a self-sustaining method of power and water generation.

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Scientists working to mimic the process of photosynthesis have reached a significant milestone.

At full capacity, the S100 can process 12.3 cubic meters of sewer sludge to produce 10,800 liters of drinking water and 150kW of electricity, though this can be increased if less water is needed. The water, which can be produced with sewage that has a moisture content of up to 84%, is both FDA and WHA approved.

Tasty and safe to drink

With the Omni Processor seemingly offering a solution to two of the major issues for the developing world, just how big an impact might it have?

Speaking about the technologies dual-service of generating water and electricity, Bill Gates said: "The processor wouldn’t just keep human waste out of the drinking water; it would turn waste into a commodity with real value in the marketplace. It’s the ultimate example of that old expression: one man’s trash is another man’s treasure." In a video to promote the technology, Gates also drank the water and said: "The water tasted as good as any I’ve had out of a bottle. And having studied the engineering behind it, I would happily drink it every day. It’s that safe."

For Ada Oko-Williams, sanitation technical support manager at WaterAid, the Omni Processor holds the potential for change but must prove economically feasible: "If the technology can be rolled out at a scale that makes it viable for smaller investors or entrepreneurs, then this could be a catalyst for changing the sanitation landscape in urban areas in the developing world."

In order to help the technology reach the scale required, The Gates Foundation is providing the funding for Janicki Industries to carry out a trial of the S100 in Dakar, Senegal. Set to start later this year, the trial will enable the team of engineers, who will work closely with local authorities and communities, to test out everything from where best to locate the unit to how to ensure its upkeep and carry out maintenance.

Tackling sanitation in Senegal

Fadel Fell, an engineer in the sewage division at the Senegal government, explains the great need for better sanitation in Dakar: "Sewage processing is not available for all families. They have latrine pits. People take from that latrine and dump it somewhere." He explains that in some cases, the pits can reach down 20 to 30 feet underground and contaminate water sources.

"If we are successful, we will change the lives of billions of people."

For him, the Omni Processor, offers exciting potential: "I do believe it will solve actual issues. It is new technology we are using. We may have to install many more in Senegal, in West Africa, and other places. For an engineer, for a technician, it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

Should the trial in Dakar succeed on both a humanitarian and economic front, it is hoped that the technology will attract investors, from both the private and public sectors, looking to establish profitable waste-treatment businesses. Investors looking for greater scale will also shortly be able to purchase a larger solution that can turn 92.3 cubic meters of sludge into up to 250kW of electricity and 86,000 liters of water.

Peter Janicki, founder and CEO of Janicki Industries, whose son will travel to Dakar to manage the trial, is hopeful that it will succeed: "I think we have a very high probability of being successful." And for him, that success will go beyond simple business objectives: "If we are successful, we will change the lives of billions of people. How can that not be just ultimately gratifying?"

How gratifying the impact of Janicki’s innovation will prove to be is not yet clear, but it certainly offers new hope for the developing world. The resource and labour intensive sanitation systems common in the developed world are just not an option. But technology that can turn human waste into power and water may well fit the bill.

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