Clean Power cambridge researcher invents pedal-powered vacuum pump for emptying cesspools

Published on December 3rd, 2010 | by Tina Casey


Get Ready for Pedal-Powered Sewage Pumps

December 3rd, 2010 by  

cambridge researcher invents pedal-powered vacuum pump for emptying cesspoolsIt’s a sustainable, micro-scale, low cost alternative to the gas guzzling honey wagon: a bicycle that powers a small vacuum pump for emptying cesspools, and doubles as a zero emission vehicle for trucking the sewage away. Its inventor, Cambridge University researcher Nate Sharpe, envisions his “People Powered Poo Pump” as a business opportunity for entrepreneurs in slums and other underserved communities, as well as a means of improving public health.

Pedal Power for Cesspools

The beauty of Sharpe’s system lies in its simplicity. Pretty much all that is required is a bike equipped with a tank or bucket, a bike stand to hold the bike in place when it’s being used to power the pump, a small vacuum pump, and a hose. The concept is to break down into small, manageable pieces the historically intimidating task of getting large quantities of raw sewage out of crowded communities that are unnavigable by cesspool emptiers and other large trucks, and where modern sewers are practically nonexistent.

Pedal Power and Biogas

Aside from improved public health, Sharpe envisions an additional benefit in the form of new opportunities for local entrepreneurs who would make a business out of pedal-powered cesspool cleaning. As for the final destination of the sewage, therein lies another potential benefit. Sharpe is working with the organization Sanergy to develop networks of low cost public latrines, with the waste going to feed centrally located digesters that generate biogas for heat and electricity, along with a fertilizer product.

Sewage as a Resource

Here at CleanTechnica, we’ve been writing pretty frequently about the turnaround that human and animal waste has accomplished in recent years. Once a mere, well, waste product, excrement is quickly becoming an important resource for producing biogas and natural fertilizer, both at municipal wastewater treatment plants and at livestock operations. For the most part we’ve been covering engineering solutions that require a relatively large investment. Cross-pollinating biogas and fertilizer production with micro scale, low cost pedal-power opens up a whole new world of possibilities.

Pedal Power for Everyone

Cesspool emptiers are just one example of the potential for low cost pedal power devices to improve life. Another example is the Nuru Lights pedal-powered light kit, which was developed to replace the hazardous, expensive kerosene lamps used in many undeveloped communities. On the lighter side, Rock the Bike and the beauty company Aveda are demonstrating that pedal power has a place in developed communities, too, with pedal-powered concerts and salons.

Image: Bicycles by richardmasoner on

Check out our new 93-page EV report, based on over 2,000 surveys collected from EV drivers in 49 of 50 US states, 26 European countries, and 9 Canadian provinces.

Tags: , , , , ,

About the Author

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. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • This is story seems like bonkers journalism. Sorry guys, you deserve this comment.
    First, “honey wagons” and their operation are regulated by public health agencies under local and/or state jurisdictions. If this vacuum bike scenario comes true, every Dick and Jane with a pink bike could be cruising around with septage on board, taking trips between cesspools (these are prohibited by most health codes to prevent aquifer contamination) and a sewage treatment plant or a nearby manhole to discharge waste loads. Maybe the focus should be to plan for better sanitation practices instead of fleets of roving pink bikes.
    Small diameter suction devices are apt to plug with personal care products and uncontrollable materials flushed down the drain. What will Dick and Jane do to clear a plugged suction device? Maybe the pink bikes can be modified to include a big paper roll and soiled paper waste container to clean up a plugged suction device. A solar powered fly swatter might be a green accessory.
    THERE ARE BETTER LONG-TERM PLANS: “Waterless” toilets and urinals can produce compost, allowing nutrients in human waste (primarily from consumed foods grown in soil) to be returned to soils instead of polluting waterways and aquifers.
    CT journalists need to consider report on waterless technologies, see for some leads.

Back to Top ↑