Looking for life, destroying life: Turning poop into water

You’ve probably heard of the software tycoon Bill Gates before: Harvard dropout, co-founder of Microsoft, one of the richest people in the world. But to me, some of Gates’ biggest contributions to the world stem from his philanthropy. Bill Gates and his equally incredible partner Melinda Gates are trailblazers in global health.

Through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, they have pioneered solutions to sanitation and human waste disposal. In my last column, I discussed the issue of open defecation, which is the practice of defecating into the environment perpetuated by the lack of toilet infrastructure. This is an issue that deeply disturbed the Gates family. The Gates Foundation notes that so many people care about clean water, but reiterates that areas of poor sanitation have incredible difficulty acquiring clean water.

Many low and-middle income countries do not have a proper means for human waste disposal. Often, people have to use pit latrines, which are glorified holes in the ground separated by walls. Eventually, the holes fill with fecal matter, which is eventually dumped into the environment (i.e. water sources, landfills). Over time, people simply do not know what to do with these massive amounts of … shit.

The Gates family knew that the solution to poor sanitation would be complex, so they reached out to top engineers, offering a multimillion-dollar award. The goal was to create a toilet that required no external energy, no external plumbing and no short-term upkeep. On top of all this, it had to be extremely cheap because low-income countries cannot process waste like America.

Sounds hard, right? No one could figure it out.

Then, the Gates Foundation partnered with Sedron Technologies (formerly Janicki Bioenergy) to create the first prototype of the Omni Processor (OP), which treats fecal sludge. Its technology works to completely eliminate pathogens from stool and generate useful outputs.

Let me break it down because this machine literally blew my mind. Basically, you insert fecal matter into the machine. The waste is boiled, and the water vapor that is given off is recovered. The remnant dry feces is combusted, which removes pathogens and also powers the boiler that heats the initial stool. The steam from boiling the waste is converted to electrical energy. This energy purifies the steam to produce clean, drinking water and powers the entire OP.

This invention is groundbreaking. It is extremely inexpensive, completely self-powered, eliminates waste and creates clean drinking water from human fecal matter. Bill Gates discussed the OP in an interview with Jimmy Fallon in 2015. In the video titled, “Bill Gates and Jimmy Drink Poop Water,” both tried the so-called “poop water.” Needless to say, the difference between bottled water and poop water was undetectable.

A pilot-version OP has been working in Dakar, Senegal since 2015. Now, the goal is expansion. This technology saves lives and was created by considering the challenges of low and middle-income countries. In many ways, American advancements do not scale down to the developing world. When that happens, we need creative solutions. The Omni Processor is just the beginning.