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US-Ghana team gets Gates Foundation grant to transform human waste into energy

A US-Ghanaian team has been awarded US$ 1.5 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop a biorefinery that will convert fecal sludge to biodiesel and methane.

Prof. Kartik Chandran. Photo: Columbia University

Kartik Chandran, an associate professor of Earth and Environmental Engineering at Columbia Engineering is leading the team that includes Ashley Murray, founder and director of Waste Enterprisers, and Moses Mensah, a Chemical Engineering professor at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology. Chandran may involve the Columbia University Engineers without Borders Ghana team, for whom he acts as faculty advisor, as well.

Chandran and his team aim to develop a bioprocess technology to convert the organic compounds present in fecal sludge to biodiesel and methane, two potent sources of energy, and thus convert a waste-processing facility into a biorefinery. The biorefinery will not only be an economical source of fuel, but, by minimizing discharge of fecal sludge into local water bodies, it will also contribute to improved human health and sanitation. Chandran says that potential outcomes of his work will also include integrating the bioprocess technology component into a social enterprise business model that will further promote widespread implementation of this approach and technology across the globe, especially in developing economies.

Earlier Waste Enterprisers conducted an exploratory study, funded by the Gates Foundation, to identify promising fecal sludge reuse and management options for  Greater Accra, Ghana. Their study incorporated  detailed analyses of emerging energy-related reuse options. Waste Enterprisers is one of the partners in a European Water Initiative ERA-NET – SPLASH project on “Faecal Management Enterprises (FaME)” in Ghana, Senegal, and Uganda. One of project activities is to demonstrate the technical and financial viability of using faecal sludge as a fuel in cement manufacturing (and other industrial processes).

Dr. Ashley Murray, founder Waste Enterprisers, Ghana and a 2011 recipient of a National Geographic's Emerging Explorers Program award. Photo: Matthew Muspratt

Since about two years the Gates Foundation has shifted its focus from water and hygiene to sanitation. While the Foundation continues to provide limited funding to promising clean water and hygiene solutions, its main grantmaking will go to three areas: ending open defecation; investment in sanitation tools and technologies; and policy and advocacy.

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Source: Columbia University, 01 Jun 2011