Drinking our own poop is not healthy. But when you take human waste, heat the crap out of it — literally — and send it through a super pressure cooker with a little bit of oxygen, the end result could actually be drinkable water.
Researchers at Duke University and the University of Missouri are in the process of building a system that does such a thing. They received $100,000 as part of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s “Reinvent the Toilet” research competition two years ago, and now the scientists just landed $1.18 million more to continue working on something that could very well turn sewage waste into water, energy and other byproducts.
Here’s how it works. Inside a moveable 20-foot container that can be shipped across oceans is something researchers call a “pressure cooker on steroids,” or in more scientific terms, supercritical water oxidation (SCWO).
“When you heat water above 705 degrees Fahrenheit under pressure, it becomes a ‘supercritical fluid,’ thicker than steam but less dense than water,” co-principal investigator William Jacoby said in a press release. “When we add oxygen to the process, it quickly ‘burns up’ any carbonaceous materials, including human waste.”
The researchers are also trying to find ways to make the system, which requires no electricity, economically viable. The byproducts could potentially be used for community showers or laundry facilities, for example.
Plans are in the works to have a prototype built in 15 months at Duke. If all goes well, the system will be deployed to places like South Africa, India and Ghana.
It certainly could be a useful solution for an ongoing problem. According to the World Health Organization, 2.4 billion people don’t have access to improved sanitation facilities, and about 2 million people die every year due to diarrhoeal diseases, most of them young children.