Columbia Prof Gets $1.5 Million Grant for Ghana Sewage-to-Biofuel Project

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Columbia professor wins Gates grant for sewage-to-biodiesel project in GhanaHere in the U.S., we’re starting to reap a rich harvest of sustainable resources from our municipal wastewater treatment plants. The current and potential haul includes biogas, biodiesel, bioplastic, reclaimed wastewater for irrigation, and sludge “cake” that can be used as a soil enhancer. Hydrokinetic power is another option, and treatment plants often make ideal locations for solar power and wind turbines. Now a professor at Columbia University, Kartik Chandran, has won a $1.5 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to start bringing some of these benefits to communities globally, starting with Accra, the largest city in Ghana.

Wastewater as a Resource

If the name Chandran rings a bell, you may have read about him in a couple of previous Cleantechnica posts on one of our favorite topics, wastewater. Chandran, who is an associate professor at Columbia’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science,  recently developed a study that showed how greenhouse gas emissions from wastewater treatment plants could be reduced. He has also worked with a Columbia colleague, Professor Scott Banta, to develop a biofuel from bacteria, which can be grown using carbon dioxide from ambient air and ammonia from wastewater.

The Coming Flood of Waste

The funding, through the Gates’ Grand Challenge in Global Health organization, specifically addresses the problem of fecal waste disposal in communities where piped water-based sanitation is unaffordable or not feasible. An estimated 2.1 billion city dwellers depend on non-piped facilities such as septic tanks, privies and cesspools, and it’s a mess trying to keep all that gunk out of water for washing, irrigation and human consumption. It’s an enormous public health problem that kills an estimated 1.6 million children each year, and it’s bound to grow worse with the global increase in population. Unless solutions are developed, of course.

The Next Generation of Waste Control

Along with his research partners, Chandran is developing a “Next-Generation Urban Sanitation Facility” according to the parameters called for in the Grand Challenge. The facility will use a bioprocess to convert fecal sludge into biodiesel and methane, so it will provide local communities with an affordable source of fuel while reducing environmental and public health impacts. In addition, the facility will be developed as a “social enterprise business model” that could be replicated in underserved communities to promote local economic sustainability as well as environmental sustainability – fair enough, since local residents will be providing the feedstock for the biofuel enterprise.

Wastewater as a Treasure Trove

The biofuel concept could apply to livestock operations as well, and in fact the methane biogas aspect is already being promoted by the Obama Administration for livestock farms in the U.S., as a means of reducing environmental impacts and enabling farmers to generate an additional high value product. According to Chandran, the term “wastewater” is already becoming an anachronism. We may be a long way from actually developing an affection for the stuff, but at least we’re beginning to appreciate it.

Image (altered): Biodiesel by celine nadeau on flickr.com.


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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3238 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey