World Toilet Day has got to be one of the least known and least respected days of the year, and we at CleanTechnica did our part: we forgot all about it. So, to make up for missing World Toilet Day, which as a matter of fact was observed on November 19, let’s take a look at a project that is what every toilet dreams of becoming: a human waste-to-diesel biorefinery. Hey, don’t laugh! After all, a toilet can dream…
The Brains Behind the Ultimate Toilet Biorefinery
The project that caught our eye is a pilot biorefinery in Ghana, which will convert human waste to diesel fuel. The multinational team behind the biorefinery consists of Columbia University’s Engineering School, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), the Kumasi Metropolitan Assembly, and the Ghanaian company Waste Enterprisers Ltd.
The basic research was initiated at the Columbia Engineering Lab, spearheaded by Kartik Chandran, associate professor of Earth Engineering and Applied Science.
The project pairs Chandran with rising waste-to-energy star Ashley Murray, who is CEO and founder of Waste Enterprisers.
There’s an A-list corporate connection, too. Last year, Chandran won a $1.5 million grant to develop the biorefinery from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. You may recall Bill and Melinda from the “Reinvent the Toilet Challenge,” among other projects.
If you’ve been following CleanTechnica for a while, you might also recall that we’ve been following Chandran. He’s also known for a study of greenhouse gas emissions from wastewater treatment plants and a project to develop biofuel from bacteria and wastewater.
Packing More Biorefinery Punch into Small Spaces
Conventional sewage treatment plants are sprawling affairs that take up a lot of space. With the pilot biorefinery, Chandran and Murray aim to show that the waste-to-diesel process can be translated from the laboratory into the real world of tight urban spaces. According to Chandran:
“We are aiming to create a next-generation urban sanitation facility that will set new standards and serve as a model around the world. With the capacity to receive and treat 10,000 liters, or 2,500 gallons—a full sanitation truck carrying concentrated fecal matter from at least 5,000 people—of fecal sludge per day, this facility reaches way beyond the lab scale.”
A Sustainability Twofer for World Toilet Day
By producing renewable diesel fuel along with methane, the project is expected to provide underserved urban communities with a cost-effective strategy for improving public health. As Murray describes it:
“Our goal is to develop a revenue-generating fecal-sludge-to-biodiesel facility that can transform sanitation from an expensive burden into a profitable venture. If we figure out a way to make waste management profitable, governments and citizens that currently bear the financial, environmental, and public health costs will all be better off.”
That’s a pretty ambitious goal, given that an estimated 1.1 billion people lack access to modern toilet facilities or, for that matter, any kind of organized, sanitary means of exercising fundamental human functions.
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Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.