USF NEWgenerator MBR wins Grand Challenges Explorations grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

An innovative anaerobic membrane bioreactor, which is under development by the University of South Florida, has been named as a winner of a Grand Challenges Explorations grant awarded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The NEWgenerator MBR has been in development since 2002 by Daniel Yeh, Associate Professor of Engineering at the USF, and recovers nutrients, energy and water from human wastes, leaving very little to be disposed of. The project is one of 110 in six categories selected for support from the Gates Challenges fund, which is designed specifically for researchers to explore unconventional ideas that could solve persistent global health and development challenges.

Yeh will use the $100,000 grant to develop a prototype device that, once linked into a septic system, will convert human waste into water that has been thoroughly cleaned of pathogens and is suitable for crop irrigation or household uses such as in cooling systems or flushing. The process also produces methane gas which can be captured and used for heating and as a clean energy source. Yeh has developed a contained refinery system that is relatively inexpensive, doesn’t consume too much energy itself and doesn’t leave much by-product from the waste processing.

The Gates grant will help fund the construction of larger prototype that will be put into use at Learning Gate Community School, a Hillsborough County charter school that has built its curriculum around sustainability. The development of the project has been supported by grants from the Florida Energy Systems Consortium and the USF Graduate School’s Sustainable Healthy Communities grant.

Yeh’s machine produces a very small amount of sludge, which is easily returned to the septic system for usual disposal. The methane gas can be captured and piped out of NEWgenerator while the water is processed through a specialised membrane that removes other elements, along with bacteria and other pathogens that would make using the reclaimed water problematic. The residual water contains ammonia and phosphate, especially useful for crop irrigation.

Over the last four years, Dr Yeh has been testing a small version of the NEWgenerator using dry cat food soaked in water which mimics the properties of human waste.

The system differs from current wastewater treatment plants which use aerobic microbes to break down wastes. Those systems require more energy to run and leave considerable sludge byproduct that must be disposed of. Yeh’s project is also intended for a much smaller scale than larger centralised systems.

The challenge in building a larger-scale device is to refine the design to make it rugged and affordable to operate as it would need to be in a developing nation. The prototype model will return the water and sludge that comes out of the reactor to the septic system, but the eventual goal is to be able to plug the NEWgenerator into a variety of sanitation systems for waste treatment and recovery of water and nutrients.

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