VIA “vice.com”, by Peter Lawrence Kane
By now, you’ve probably seen the video of Bill Gates drinking a Kerr jar full of water derived from human poo. The machine that cranked out the butt-juice, terrifyingly called the Omniprocessor (or OP), uses human waste to generate potable water and electricity that can be sold back to the grid, with ash as the only byproduct. It was produced by Janicki Bioenergy and funded by the tech mogul’s foundation.
To get a better sense of how this project works, I spoke with Doulaye Koné, senior program officer in the Gates Foundation’s Water and Sanitation Division, who appears in the video announcing the technology.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
VICE: How did this project start? Doulaye Koné: In 2011, when I joined, one of the questions we were debating was how can we help solve additional crises. If we were to rethink sanitation as a service that would work for everyone, what can we do in terms of the service model and business model? On the technology side, we’re working on the only processor technology that could make the private sector work in this field. Besides this, we’re also doing a lot of work on how you set up successful business relationships for entrepreneurs and communities to get fast-track access to sanitation services.
So the main point is to get poor communities to dispose of their sewage? The electricity generation is just an added benefit? There are different ways to dispose of waste today, but human waste is loaded with pathogens. In Seattle, the sewer treatment and wastewater treatment system works very well. The US can pay for that. In many other countries, in poor communities you don’t even get the necessary funding to build those things. And once they’re installed, the operation is so poor that the system doesn’t remove the pathogens from the environment. So even where you can get rid of the waste from the community and just put it somewhere, it will still spread disease. So people tend to live in a very polluted environment. You have flies, you have bacteria, you have viruses breeding on waste. What we wanted to do is build a suite of technologies that would remove that pathogen contamination.
Second, for those systems to be operational, to really incentivize government, you have to find a way to make them profitable. This means if it’s a technology where someone—a government entity, a private company—can recover additional revenue, it provides a great incentive to maintain the system. Sustainability is key.
In the OP, we went for electricity and potable water as potential commodities. You can also tune this to produce fertilizer.
So these can be modified to suit local needs? Yes, this particular OP, you can choose to optimize power production or water production. We’re working on other technologies that are also focusing on different types of products: oil, or biodiesel from human waste.
But we haven’t gotten enough confidence that biodiesel can be a lead market, because the production costs are still very high. We haven’t found a way to make the system profitable at this point.
How much electricity could one OP produce? The Unit Two version makes 300 kilowatt/hours. Of course, you can scale up or scale down, depending on the client’s request. If you talk scaling up, you’re targeting metropolitan areas. This is actually well-suited for small towns where you don’t have grid service arrangements for dealing with sanitation.
Can you tell me about the ash? When you burn organic materials, like wood, you have ash as a residue. The ash that’s a residue of the feces doesn’t have a lot of organic [content]. It’s purely mineral. It’s not toxic. I keep reminding people, we don’t eat heavy metals, we don’t excrete heavy metals, and we don’t excrete those nasty pollutants. The concentration in human feces is very, very low.
Is there a specific country where you have a pilot project? We have an agreement with the government of Senegal to do the next demonstration there. In February or March, we will dismantle here and reassemble the unit in Senegal, in an existing facility. This would be a partnership with the national sanitation utility there and a private partner who is operating a treatment plant. That private partner would be involved in the day-to-day operations, so we can understand the cash flow and the revenue, what an entrepreneur can make, and how we can optimize the profits based on data we’ll be collecting there.
And the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is involved with not only funding the development, but getting it to where it needs to be? Inventing is one step, but what is critical is access. What we want to do is make sure that the right system or service model gets deployed to communities that don’t have service today. Senegal is the best case, and we’re working in other places as well: India, Ghana, Kenya, and South Africa.
So who’s paying for it: the Senegalese government or the Gates Foundation? We’re paying for the first one, because obviously it’s hard to sell when people haven’t seen it. The next unit will be a direct business between the Janicki team and any potential client who wants to acquire it.
How much does it cost? Around $1.5 million, but I would not focus too much on that. This machine is a great profit center compared to many waste processing systems we have. They’ll recover it very fast.
Do you see any logistical hurdles to worldwide distribution? There are many hurdles. A lot of existing procurement processes are based on technology that is known. We need to make sure that those procurement processes are flexible enough to accommodate new ideas and new technologies. Tax regulations and business practices are one of the issues that the Janicki team will have to figure out when negotiating with entrepreneurs and governments.
What would be the best case scenario five or ten years from now? That this was a solution which had a lot of communities living on pit latrines, to have a good service. Today many cities don’t even have one single sewage treatment plant. The waste is dumped into the street, and a lot of times, it’s done manually. The OP is a great improvement. In addition to processing human waste, this also collects garbage. The more garbage you throw in, the more power you get. I hope ten years from now we’ll see a lot of improvement in quality of life, reducing the death toll due to disease.
So you did drink the water? I did.
Was it warm? It can’t be very cold, coming out of that. The way the system is set up, when it comes from the tap, it’s good enough for you to drink it.