In many parts of the world, clean drinking water is more precious than gold. Either there is no waste water infrastructure or, if there is, the process is so basic it does little to nothing to treat the waste effectively. Much of it just gets dumped into the nearest river or ocean. Diseases caused by poor sanitation kill some 700,000 children every year and prevent many more from fully developing mentally and physically. Bill Gates has a plan to change all that.
A few years ago, his charitable foundation issued a challenge: find a way to treat sewage locally to provide a source of clean water. Janicki BioEngineering responded with its OmniProcessor, a machine that takes raw sewage in and puts clean water out. Not exactly the most pleasant process to think about, perhaps, but one that could have major implications for millions of people around the world.
‘If we get it right, it will be a good example of how philanthropy can provide seed money that draws bright people to work on big problems, eventually creating a self-supporting industry,” says Gates. “Our foundation is funding Janicki to do the development. It’s really amazing to see how they’ve embraced the work. Founder Peter Janicki and his family have traveled to Africa and India multiple times so they can see the scope of the problem.”
The OmniProcessor operates at 1000 degrees Celsius (1800 F) — hot enough to kill any pathogens and eliminate any noxious odors. The liquids are boiled off as steam, which is then processed and filtered into potable water. The solid waste left over is burned to produce electricity to help run the machine. One $1.5 million dollar OmmiProcessor can provide enough drinking water for a community of 100,000 people. That is a small fraction of what building sewers and a traditional treatment plant would cost.
The first OmniProcessor is located in Sedro-Wooley, Washington, 70-some miles north of Microsoft’s headquarters near Seattle. Next, the Gates Foundation plans to install an Omniprocessor in Dakar, Senegal. That experience will help them learn how to work with local communities and how to choose the best location. They will also test a system of sensors and webcams that will let Janicki’s engineers control the processor remotely and communicate with the team in Dakar so they can diagnose any problems.
“It tastes as good as anything I’ve drunk out of a bottle,” Gates says. “And having studied the engineering behind it, I would happily drink it every day. It’s that safe.”
Image credit: Gates Notes