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Poop-to-power projects pumped up

Vickie Chachere / USF News

University of South Florida associate professor Daniel Yeh has worked on developing the NEWgenerator, which harvests clean water, methane and nutrients from sewage, for nearly a decade.

Innovators from around the world who see power in steaming piles of poop are getting serious money from Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates' foundation to help the world's 2.1 billion urban dwellers without access to sewers live safer, more sanitary and electrified lives.

Grantee Daniel Yeh, a civil and environmental engineer at the University of South Florida, for example, will use the funds to field test an advanced technology that harvests nutrients, energy, and water from wastewater.

Known as the NEW generator, it uses anaerobic microorganisms — those that live in the absence of oxygen — to convert organic material into methane, which is natural gas, and a membrane that filters out viruses and bacteria, leaving only water enriched with the nutrients ammonia and phosphorous.

"In the lab, we can already turn wastewater into methane and we can already recover the ammonia and phosphorus into a clean water solution that looks crystal clear, just like tap water," Yeh told me. "The only difference is it has ammonia and phosphorus in it."

Those two nutrients are crucial for growing crops. So this water would be ideal for irrigation, freeing farmers from synthetic ammonia fertilizer, which is energy intensive to make, and phosphorus, which is a finite mined resource, Yeh added.

He and his colleagues will use the $100,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to build a field unit and demonstrate the technology at the environmentally progressive Learning Gate Community School in Florida.

Sanitation grants
The project is one of 31 announced Monday by the Seattle-based global health organization for its next generation sanitation technologies as part of a larger round of grants awarded in the Grand Challenges Explorations program.

Untreated fecal sludge contaminates water used for everything from irrigation and bathing to dishwashing and drinking. An estimated 1.6 million children die each year from diarrheal disease, many caused by fecal-oral contamination, according to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Among the 30 other projects receiving funding for next generation sanitation technologies are:

  • Entrepreneur Jason Aramburu's re:char technology that aims to convert human waste into biochar, which can be used as a replacement for chemical fertilizer or charcoal.
  • Environmental and sustainability engineer Zhiyong Ren at the University of Colorado Denver will develop a low-cost and easy-to-operate bioelectric system that uses microbes to breakd waste and convert it to useable electricity.
  • Chemist Steven Cobb at Durham University in the United Kingdom aims to develop a "macroporous" scaffold that can support bacterial cells and metal nanoparticles that work together to catalyze conversion of fecal sludge into hydrogen for electricity.
  • Roboticist Ioannnis Ieropoulos at the University of Bristol will test the ability of microbial fuel cells to convert urine and sludge into electrical energy while purifying water and killing pathogens.
  • And engineer Yinije Tang at Washington University in St. Louis will develop a genetically engineered fungal species that can convert fecal sludge into butanol, a biofuel similar to gasoline.

While we've seen plenty of poop to power projects over the years, all of the ideas fit the Gates Foundation's requirement for proposals designed for low income urban settings, where demand for fecal sludge emptying and treatment are high.

According to the Gates Foundation, the indiscriminate dumping of a truckload of fecal sludge is the equivalent of 5,000 people openly defecating. Harvesting the energy and nutrients in that sludge, noted Yeh, could help solve some of the world's greatest challenges: energy and food.

"Wherever people live, there's wastewater. It's a 24/7 thing," he said. "Why don't we connect the whole picture together and close the loop."

More on poop to power:

John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. To learn more about him, check out his website. For more from our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.

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