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USF researcher gets Gates grant to turn human waste into nutrients, water and energy

TAMPA — A potential source of energy is being flushed down the toilet.

Yes, human waste may be the newest answer to the world's shortage of nutrients, energy and water. At least that's the idea behind a University of South Florida research project, recently boosted by a $100,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

"In a nutshell, it is looking at waste as an opportunity, as a resource, looking at it beyond the fact that it's waste," said Daniel Yeh, the USF associate professor heading the project.

Forty percent of the world's 7 billion people don't have a good way to handle that "resource," Yeh says. That's where his machine, the NEWgenerator, comes in. NEW stands for nutrients, energy and water.

Yeh's model, which uses microbes to break down the icky stuff, is different than typical wastewater treatments because it recoups what other methods cast off. Byproducts such as nitrogen and phosphorous can be used as fertilizers. The clean water is used for irrigation.

Additionally, Yeh's contraption requires little energy — rather, it creates energy as methane gas.

He hopes to simplify the machine to allow its widespread use in developing countries.

Yeh's is one of more than 100 projects chosen by the Gates Foundation as part of the Grand Challenges Explorations initiatives, which support unorthodox ideas aimed at solving persistent health and development challenges. Other winning subjects include new approaches for curing AIDS, nutrition for healthier infants and children, and research into new sanitation techniques.

Yeh said the money will allow him and his students to build a prototype of his NEWgenerator at the Learning Gate Community School, a charter school in Lutz.

There, he will finally be able to test his machine with human waste, from the school's septic tank. So far, he and his students have been using granular cat food, which, oddly enough, has a similar chemical composition as sewage.

The machine will be in a restricted area of the campus but incorporated into lesson plans on sustainability, said Learning Gate principal Michelle Mason.

That idea is a big focus of the school, which Mason said aims to teach students to become "good stewards of the Earth" through recycling, composting and gardening.

"This project will aid in the discovery process by providing a hands-on, interactive way for students to learn how the NEWgenerator can be used to recycle," Mason said.

At the same time, Yeh hopes to prove the machine works with real waste. If it does, he will apply for a second Gates grant of $1 million to implement the research.

"That's very exciting," Yeh said. "For a lot of researchers, things don't get beyond the lab. To be able to directly turn your ideas into a product, into an approach that somebody can actually use, that doesn't come very often."

He has been working on the project since 2002 as a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University and continuing when he came to USF in 2007. This grant, he said, validates all that hard work and motivates him to keep going.

"I talk to my students about a net positive experience. You're going to spend your days doing something anyway," Yeh said, "Why not make sure you're leaving something behind so you have a positive impact?"

Rather than, you know, flushing it.

Kim Wilmath can be reached at kwilmath@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3337.

USF researcher gets Gates grant to turn human waste into nutrients, water and energy 01/14/12 [Last modified: Saturday, January 14, 2012 3:30am]
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