Human Waste for Biofuels?

Joanna Schroeder

Can fecal sludge be used for biofuels? Maybe believes Kartik Chandran an associated professor of Earth and Environmental Engineering at Columbia Engineering. He has recently been awarded a $1.5 million grant from the Gates Foundation to continue his research into a new model for water, sanitation and energy. And this is where fecal sludge, aka poop comes in.

This is not the first time poop has been studied to make fuel. Companies have tried to use the waste from large scale cattle farms and from zoo animals. But this project is a bit different. Chandran is working with Ashley Murray, founder and director of Waste Enterprisers, and Moses Mensah, a Chemical Engineering professor at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, to develop an innovative technology to transform fecal sludge into biodiesel and create the “Next-Generation Urban Sanitation Facility” in Accra, Ghana.

“We are delighted to be awarded this project,” Chandran says. “And we are especially pleased that the Gates Foundation has recognized the critical importance of sustainable sanitation by investing in our pioneering project. Thus far, sanitation approaches have been extremely resource- and energy-intensive and therefore out of reach for some of the world’s poorest but also most at-need populations. This project will allow us to move forward and develop practical technologies that will be of great value around the world.”

Chandran has been working in Ghana for two years as the faculty advisor for the Columbia University Engineers without Borders Ghana team. He and his team have a goal of developing a bioprocess technology to convert the organic compounds present in fecal sludge to biodiesel and methane. In essence, this would convert the waste-processing facility into a state-of-the art biorefinery.

Not only would this biorefinery produce economical fuel but would also minimize the discharge of fecal sludge into the water system contributing to better human health and sanitation. Chandran hopes that once the project is proven successful, it could be integrated into a social enterprise business model that would improve economics and health in areas around the world.

Chandran concluded, “This project also affords a new path in engineering education, both in the United States and Ghana. 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. In fact, the term ‘wastewater’ is already archaic. Wastewater is, after all, just water with a different chemical and biological composition.”

Biodiesel, biofuels, Research, Video, Waste-to-Energy