Steam Machine Turns Poop into Clean Drinking Water

The Omniprocessor.
The Omniprocessor S100 will be tested out in Dakar, Senegal this spring. (Image credit: Janicki Bioenergy)

Bill Gates wants to turn your poop into clean drinking water, and he's got just the machine to do it.

In a recent blog post and video, the billionaire entrepreneur and philanthropist showed off what he called an "ingenious machine," a steam-powered sewage processor that burns up solid waste and creates both potable water and electricity.

Dubbed the "Omniprocessor," the machine was designed and built by the Washington-based engineering firm Janicki Bioenergy, which is now receiving funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to further develop the technology. Gates believes the machine can help solve one of the developing world's biggest problems — access to clean water. [Top 10 Craziest Environmental Ideas]

At least 2 billion people the world over relieve themselves in bathroom facilities that aren’t properly drained, according to Gates, who also noted that many others don't have access to bathrooms at all and must defecate out in the open. All of this improperly processed waste contaminates the drinking water of millions of people in communities around the globe. This results in disease that kills about 700,000 children every year, and stunts the physical and mental development of many more, Gates wrote in his blog post.

But the solution to this devastating problem isn't to build more toilets. Western-style sewer lines and sewage treatment plantsare not feasible options in most poor countries, according to Gates. But, a sewage treatment machine like the Omniprocessor may work in such places, he said.

The machine is loaded up with sewer sludge, which travels up a conveyor belt and is fed into large tubes known as dryers. The dryers boil the sludge, removing all the liquid and capturing it as water vapor, which is then heavily processed, making it suitable to drink.

The solid waste is dumped into an incinerator, which burns up the rest of the waste, creating a good deal of heat. This heat, in turn, is funneled through a steam engine, which produces high-temperature steam that fuels a generator. The generator creates electricity that is used to power the machine. There's even a little extra electricity left over that can be transferred into the power grid.

This self-sustaining machine will soon be launched in a pilot project in Dakar, Senegal, where Janicki engineers will study the Omniprocessor's operation in a real-world setting. Eventually Omniprocessors will be sold to local entrepreneurs who will purchase the machine for about $1.5 million, according to a report by Wired. In addition to testing out different locations for the machine and communicating with local community members about how it works, the Janicki team's trial run in Senegal will also test out a system of sensors and webcams that will let engineers in the United States control the machine remotely.

"It might be many years before the processor is being used widely," Gates wrote in his blog post. "But I was really impressed with Janicki’s engineering. And I’m excited about the business model. The processor wouldn’t just keep human waste out of the drinking water; it would turn waste into a commodity with real value in the marketplace. It’s the ultimate example of that old expression: one man’s trash is another man’s treasure."

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Elizabeth Peterson

Elizabeth is a former Live Science associate editor and current director of audience development at the Chamber of Commerce. She graduated with a bachelor of arts degree from George Washington University. Elizabeth has traveled throughout the Americas, studying political systems and indigenous cultures and teaching English to students of all ages.