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Bill Gates backs human waste-to-fuel tech

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Making energy from poop can be a good profit-making and social enterprise. That’s the aim of a research project at Columbia University, where a professor is getting a $1.5 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop a waste-to-energy technology.

Kartik Chandran, a professor of earth and environmental engineering, is working on a process to produce biodiesel and methane from fecal sludge. Methane can be used to generate electricity and heat (read about Landfill Methane Outreach Program by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency).

Chandran wants to develop the technology to give people in poor countries a less expensive and energy-intensive way to process human wastes and to minimize wastewater contamination of local rivers and lakes.

Energy cost has been going up for wastewater treatment plant operators, according to an EPA report issued last September. Government mandates to reduce environmental contamination often require newer and more expensive equipment that also uses more electricity, the report said.

The professor and his research team want to use the technology to build a refinery in Accra, Ghana. Chandran is an advisor for the Ghana team at the Engineers Without Borders’ Columbia University chapter. Engineers Without Borders is a nonprofit that matches engineers and engineering students with community projects worldwide.

The Gates Foundation is known for financing public health and anti-poverty research and deployment projects. Bill Gates also is a big supporter of renewable energy and has used his tech celebrity status to advocate for more government funding for clean energy research. He has invested in nuclear startup TerraPower and algae-to-fuel company Sapphire Energy.

The idea to produce energy from human wastes isn’t new and has been explored by other companies and academic researchers around the world.

Photo courtesy of U.K.’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office via Flickr

One Response to “Bill Gates backs human waste-to-fuel tech”

  1. Correction to Bill Gates’ Error on 20 June 2011

    Responding to Bill Gates’ incorrect choice about which fuel to support, and which future car industry we will have:

    The Japanese have long wanted to recycle human waste into fertilizer. There is this methodology for proper sanitation being included in the sewage system design on Eupedia. This sanitation method is also useful in developing nations without putting in a full sewage system – it is already implemented in Khokana, Nepal.

    The sanitation issues mentioned in this Wiki article describe a very different experience from the Japan I visited during 2008. I witnessed first hand in 2008 that Japan does have and does distribute freely to its citizens clean fertilizer made from human waste.

    The next issue with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grant is that it supports an incorrect type of fuel model and sends an incorrect message to other researchers.

    The eVaro is the car of the future with its recyclable batteries, regenerative braking and gas generator. Future Vehicle Technologies’ eVaro works with the entire fuel and electric infrastructure that we have in position right now, and the eVaro’s range with its gas generator is 700k (430 miles).

    When looking at sustainable solutions for the future, we think also in terms of how we get from here to there. Causing a solution that could require expensive physical changes to the infrastructure already in place is less strategic than causing a solution that works together with the existing infrastructure exactly the way that it already is.

    Links are here: