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Harvesting energy and clean drinking water from human waste

19 April 2012

A project by a team of researchers from The University of Manchester, Imperial College London and Durham University has beaten more than 2,000 other proposals to receive $100,000 of funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop a prototype system for recovering drinkable water and harvesting hydrogen energy from human faecal waste.

Dr Sarah Haigh

The researchers believe the technology could provide an inexpensive device for people in the developing world to generate clean water and energy from waste and a sustainable source of hydrogen energy that could be used to power homes in developed countries. The device will be portable, allowing installation in homes and remote locations, and the technology is based on a porous scaffold that holds bacteria and metal nano-particles. When faecal sludge is filtered through the scaffolding these particles will react with the waste matter to generate the recycled resources. These can either be used immediately or stored for later use.

The first stage of the project will see the team developing a stand-alone sanitation device, making it easier and cheaper for people in developing countries to adopt the technology where large sewage networks may not exist. Where sewage infrastructure is in place, the technology could be hooked into the system, minimising implementation costs for home owners.

In the long-term, the researchers aim to further develop their device into a ‘pick and mix’ series of recycling units that can extract the types of resources demanded by users such as: electrolytes used for generating electricity; methane for energy; and ammonia, which is a widely used fertiliser. The team says their device would be an advantage over other systems currently on the market that can only recover one or two resources at most.

Dr Sarah Haigh, from the School of Materials at The University of Manchester, said the technology will be particularly important for remote locations in developing countries and will have the added benefits of reduced pollution and lower waste disposal costs.

The researchers plan to have a prototype ready to demonstrate by 2013. The project team and the concept were a product of a recent Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council "Inspire in the Physical Sciences" workshop.
 


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