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An environmental engineering professor at Columbia University has been awarded a $1.5 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop a new sanitation facility that could convert human fecal matter into biodiesel or methane gas. Professor Kartik Chandran said that the project — to be tested in Accra, Ghana — creates a low-cost biodiesel refinery from human waste.

“The biorefinery will not only be an economical source of fuel, but, by minimizing discharge of fecal sludge into local water bodies, it will also contribute to improved human health and sanitation,” according to a press release about the project.

Chandran has worked in Ghana for two years as a faculty advisor for the Columbia University Engineers without Borders program.

“By training tomorrow’s engineers in sustainable approaches to ‘resource and energy recovery’ rather than ‘wastewater treatment,’ a sea-change can be achieved in the way we perceive of and manage human waste,” he said.

The Gates Foundation estimates that 2.5 billion people lack access to safe water.

Here’s Chandran talking more about the technology, and how it could be used in New York City.

Hat tip to TechCrunch, which notes that fecal matter has been used before to create energy.

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