Bill Gates backs human waste-to-fuel tech

Making energy from poop can be a good profit-making and social enterprise. That’s the aim of a research project at Columbia University, where a professor is getting a $1.5 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop a waste-to-energy technology.

Kartik Chandran, a professor of earth and environmental engineering, is working on a process to produce biodiesel and methane from fecal sludge. Methane can be used to generate electricity and heat (read about Landfill Methane Outreach Program by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency).

Chandran wants to develop the technology to give people in poor countries a less expensive and energy-intensive way to process human wastes and to minimize wastewater contamination of local rivers and lakes.

Energy cost has been going up for wastewater treatment plant operators, according to an EPA report issued last September. Government mandates to reduce environmental contamination often require newer and more expensive equipment that also uses more electricity, the report said.

The professor and his research team want to use the technology to build a refinery in Accra, Ghana. Chandran is an advisor for the Ghana team at the Engineers Without Borders’ Columbia University chapter. Engineers Without Borders is a nonprofit that matches engineers and engineering students with community projects worldwide.

The Gates Foundation is known for financing public health and anti-poverty research and deployment projects. Bill Gates also is a big supporter of renewable energy and has used his tech celebrity status to advocate for more government funding for clean energy research. He has invested in nuclear startup TerraPower and algae-to-fuel company Sapphire Energy.

The idea to produce energy from human wastes isn’t new and has been explored by other companies and academic researchers around the world.

Photo courtesy of U.K.’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office via Flickr