Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

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]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Plan your weekend Aug. 18-20: Elvis in concert, Jason Aldean, Monster Jam Triple Threat, Sing-Along Grease

    Events

    Plan your weekend

    The king

    Elvis: Live in Concert: This year marks the 40th anniversary of Elvis Presley's death, and Ruth Eckerd Hall will have a Graceland-produced Elvis concert on a movie screen, accompanied by a full live orchestra. Graceland calls it the closest audiences …

    Handout photos of Elvis: Live in Concert, a tour spectacle featuring a live orchestra backing the voice of Elvis Presley, projected onto a movie screen. The tour comes to Ruth Eckerd Hall on 8/18/17. Credit: Graceland.
  2. Woman convicted in murder of 18-year-old with cerebral palsy gets lighter term

    Criminal

    TAMPA — Linda Bonck, a 90-pound Chamberlain High School senior with cerebral palsy, lived near Tampa's Lowry Park. She struggled to walk and talk but was known for being friendly and trusting of strangers until she vanished one day in 1992.

    Georgia Miller, 39, was convicted for the 1992 murder of Linda Bonck, an 18-year-old Chamberlain High School student who had cerebral palsy. Originally sentenced to life in prison, Miller was resentenced Wednesday to 65 years, the result of U.S. and Florida Supreme Court decisions that found it unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to life. With gain time, Miller will be released from prison in the next six years. [Florida Department of Corrections]
  3. Boynton Beach woman arrested on DUI, child abuse charges

    Criminal

    A Boynton Beach woman was arrested Saturday and faces DUI and child abuse charges after she blew a .200 on a breath test with an unbuckled child in the backseat, according to the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office.

    Brandy Lerma, 31 of Boynton Beach, was arrested on DUI and child abuse charges on Saturday. [Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office]
  4. Editorial: Why can't Hillsborough commissioners move Confederate monument?

    Editorials

    The violence in Charlottesville, Va., crystallized for much of the nation the danger of refusing to address painful symbols of the past. But not so in Hillsborough County, where the County Commission on Wednesday reversed itself yet again and left open the possibility of leaving a Confederate monument outside the …

  5. Former WTSP employee sues station's parent companies for gender discrimination

    Civil

    A former director at WTSP-Ch. 10 has sued the station's parent companies, claiming she was the victim of gender discrimination.