Don’t waste energy, turn waste into energy

By Graham Salinger

Nearly 2 million people die every year from water born diseases because of a lack of adequate sanitation. A team of researchers led by Kartik Chandran, an associate professor of Earth and Environmental Engineering at Columbia University, thinks they may have a solution to the sanitation crisis that will also promote energy security in developing countries. Dr. Chandran recently received a $1.5 million grant from the Bill & Malinda Gates  Foundation to set up a “Next-Generation Urban Sanitation Facility” in Accra, Ghana.  Working with his colleagues Ashley Murray, founder and director of Waste Enterprisers , and Moses  Mensah of the  Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Dr. Chandran hopes to turn feces  found in sewage into biodiesel and methane by converting  a waste-processing facility into a biorefinery.

Dr. Kartik Chandran and his research team are developing the “Next-Generation Urban Sanitation Facility” in Accra, Ghana (Photo credit: Columbia University).

“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,” Dr.  Chandran explained in a press release. This has resulted in waste going directly into water supplies without being treated. Water management is especially important at a time when the impacts of climate change are becoming increasingly evident and fresh water availability grows more erratic. As water resources become scarce, preventing water from being contaminated becomes increasingly significant to agriculture and public health. Yet, half the people in the developing world lack access to safe sanitation.

There have been numerous  wastewater management efforts taking place in Ghana that have helped   increase  water and food security,  but the  “Next-Generation Urban Sanitation Facility”  will be the first project  of its kind because  it also  focuses on developing new sources of energy . Ghana needs alternative energy supplies because it suffering from high oil prices, relies heavily on imported energy, and remains dependent on hydropower at a time when drought hampers  productivity.

Dr. Chandran’s project could be a major stepping stone in efforts to address sanitation and energy shortages. According to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), around half the world population depends on unsustainable biomass based energy sources, such as wood.  Dr. Chandran hopes that his efforts to address the lack of sanitation and energy shortages in Ghana can serve as a testing ground for future development project aimed at tackling both problems. “This project will allow us to move forward and develop practical technologies that will be of great value around the world,” he emphasizes.

What do you think about using human waste as an energy source? Tell us in the comments section!

Graham Salinger is a research intern for Nourishing the Planet.  

To read about other waste treatment initiatives, see: Safer Water, Better Health: Improving Access to Clean Water and Sanitation to Combat DiseaseThe Spread of Information Thwarts the Spread of Disease: World Water Week in Washington DCInnovation of the Week: Reducing Wastewater Contamination Starts with a Conversation, and Innovation of the Week: Providing an Agricultural Answer to Nature’s Call.

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