The World Health Organization states that less than half of the global population uses safely managed sanitation services. Just 31 percent of people use private sanitation facilities connected to wastewater treatment systems. Sanitation is a complicated and expensive problem to solve, impacting social, economic, health and other sectors. Engineers from the University of South Florida have developed the NEWgenerator, a wastewater treatment system, to address some of these problems.
State of Sanitation
Although the United Nations has recognized access to safe drinking water and sanitation as a human right, about 4.2 billion lack access to these services. A 2019 report from the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund and the World Health Organization shows that while 2.1 billion more people have access to basic sanitation services in 2017 compared to 2000, the existing infrastructure doesn't safely manage human waste.
Billions around the world lack access to clean water and sanitation services such as clean, running water and private toilets or latrines.
For example, in India, prime minister Narendra Modi pledged to build at least five million more toilets in the country. While the initiative did result in more toilets, it didn't address the problem of waste management. Villages don't have ways to dispose of drainage water, cities have trouble keeping up with waste management and public toilets aren't cleaned regularly. As reported by Quartz, 44.4 percent of Indian villages have no arrangements for waste water disposal. The NEWgenerator could lower that percentage.
A USF team led by Daniel Yeh developed the NEWgenerator for places without proper sanitation systems. The project, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Cade Museum and the Indian government, created a machine that harvests nutrients, energy and water from human waste.
Powered by solar panels, the NEWgenerator cleans wastewater, extracts nutrients for horticulture and collects biogas for cooking or heating. The wastewater, containing both fecal matter and urine, moves through a membrane separation system that extracts nitrogen and phosphorous for plants growing on the opposite side of the membrane. Pathogens are removed from the water which is recycled for flushing toilets. The USF engineers say that the water can also be purified for drinking purposes.
The device also collects biogas from the waste. According to the American National Standards Institute, it can produce three kilowatt hours per day of energy in biogas. It also has the potential to recycle up to 100 percent of water put through the module, all for a daily operating cost of four to five U.S. dollars.
One of the most appealing aspects of the system is that it doesn't require much existing infrastructure. Because it's totally solar-powered, it doesn't rely on an electricity grid, and operators can largely control it remotely, via smartphone.
The team put the NEWgenerator to the test in Kerala, a southern Indian state, in 2016. The NEWgenerator collected the waste from electronic toilets next to a school, recycling thousands of gallons of water. The team's goal was to constantly recycle water for the eToilet and treat the wastewater. After a year of operation, the NEWgenerator proved a success. In 2018, further testing began in Durban, South Africa. There, the NEWgenerators were connected to larger restroom facilities that included toilets, showers and sinks.
Originally, the team designed the NEWgenerator for about 300 uses per day. That accounts for about 60 users of the electronic toilet system. In 2019, they began testing a larger-scale model in Durban, designed to support over a thousand daily users.
Amid the successful results from testing, Yeh formed a start-up called Bio Re NEW, Inc., to support mass production of these generators. The start-up is working with companies in India and China to mass-produce the machines, and hopes to reach similar deals in the U.S. Yeh also sees a role for NEWgenerators at refugee camps and disaster sites. Natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes can damage not only clean water sources but sanitation infrastructure. The NEWgenerator could minimize that disruption and prevent disease spread from waste contaminating water sources.
Earthquakes can be especially damaging to sewer and sanitation systems. Without proper waste management in these environments, disease can spread.