Stillwater News Press

November 20, 2012

Simple idea by Oklahoma State professors may solve big problem

By Mark Rountree
Stillwater NewsPress

STILLWATER, Okla. — Safe disposal of human waste is a worldwide problem, and a pair of Oklahoma State University chemical engineering professors are trying to do something about it.

Gary Foutch and AJ Johannes have created a device that can effectively disinfect and dewater feces and other solid wastes in developing countries.

Foutch and Johannes presented their waterless sanitation technology at the Reinvent the Toliet Fair in August in Seattle, Wash., as part of a $100,000 grant they received from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“The technique is sound, the theory is sound and the science is sound,” said Johannes. “Gary’s idea was that if you took feces and pushed it through a very small hole, it would generate heat. That’s a process we know as viscous heating. The friction alone generates heat.”

Foutch and Johannes were among 40 recipients of grants from the Foundation’s Water, Sanitation and Hygiene program.

Johannes said safe sanitation in Third World countries is a major health issue for billions of people.

“It’s a 2.5 billion-people problem,” said Johannes. “They have no way to effectively get rid of feces.”

“They can’t use septic systems because there is no water, and when the pits fill up, what do you do with it?” said Foutch. “This is toxic waste with numerous microbial diseases.”

A big issue, one that the team has been able to test at OSU, is parasite eggs.

“We can get high destruction without raising the temperature that much,” said Foutch. “We can do that by the sheer stress that we generate in the equipment.”

For the past 18 months, the OSU team has been working on Phase 1 of the project, which includes the presentation of the concept and demonstration of it on a small scale.

“What’s so interesting about this is that it’s very simple, very straightforward,” said Foutch. “I think the Gates people liked the fact that it’s not hugely complex. When you are trying to design something for the Third World, it’s got to be fairly simple.”

The grant required research on sanitation options that, among other things, did not use water, which can be a scarce commodity in Third World countries.

“We use a tremendous amount of water here and in Europe and in other developed countries just moving sewage around,” said Foutch.

Another grant restriction was that the system had to include the potential to operate without a traditional source of electricity.

“We had to be able to explain the concept of using local power or solar panels or something to get our source of electricity,” Foutch said.

Foutch said the sanitation system would need to be able to operate in extreme rural areas that were not linked to a power grid. And of course, a key restriction was that the system had to be effective in sanitizing solid waste.

“It’s a neat project because it’s a unique solution to a common problem,” said Nate Nahmias, an OSU senior chemical engineering student. “The whole purpose of the project is to develop a waste treatment system that will help people in areas where waste disposal is not available.”

Phase 2 will be demonstrating that the technology works on a larger scale. Johannes said the grant, to be awarded in the spring, could be as much as $1 million.

Foutch said the team’s grant proposal in Phase 2 will be to build a sanitation system that could be tested in the field, possibly in South Africa to treat sludge that already is being collected.

“I’d like to run it side by side with a competitive technology that is operating in a container that you could fit onto the back of a semitruck,” said Foutch. “I think we can do substantially less volume, maybe a fourth or a fifth of that size, and process the same amount of material.”