College of Engineering News Room

A Patent for Humanity

NEWgenerator team

Pictured are some of the student and postdoc researchers involved in the creation of the current NEWgenerator resource recovery machine, led by USF Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Daniel Yeh (sixth from left).

by Russell Nay

Created by a team of USF engineers led by Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Daniel Yeh, human wastewater converter NEWgenerator will be recognized as a winner of the 2020 Patents for Humanity award by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

“Team NEWgenerator is honored to be selected for the USPTO 2020 Patent for Humanity award for our contributions to global sanitation over the past decade,” Yeh wrote to colleagues online.

“Throughout history, inventors and entrepreneurs have harnessed the power of innovation to help the less fortunate around the globe,” said Andrei Iancu, Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the USPTO in a USPTO press release. “I am truly honored to recognize these innovators from across the United States, whose creativity and curiosity dared them to solve some of the toughest humanitarian challenges, and I hope this program will inspire countless more to follow in their footsteps.”

The idea for the NEWgenerator came to Yeh as a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University in 2002 while he worked on the anaerobic membrane bioreactor technology that’s the core of the system. He realized it could be used on a global scale to recycle wastewater into clean water, energy and nutrients. Water is treated for irrigation and flushing toilets; organic waste is converted into plant fertilizer, and methane gas is captured as an energy source.

“We have close to three billion people on the planet who are struggling with a lack of daily adequate sanitation needs,” Yeh said in a video interview. “We need to think of waste not as waste but as a recurring renewable resource … that can help us create a circular economy where we deal with the problem, recycle everything and provide a renewable resource to communities.”

USF postdoctoral researcher Robert Bair was a part of the NEWgenerator team since he was an undergraduate and is now NEWgenerator’s project manager and technical lead. He said it’s been rewarding to see this project grow from a proof of concept to a fully commercialized technology that has the potential to make a worldwide impact.

“Globally many communities don’t have any access to reliable electricity,” Bair said in the video interview. “We designed our system to run entirely off solar power so we don’t need electricity for our system to operate.”

Built into a mini-shipping container with attached solar panels and a hydroponics system, the NEWgenerator’s technology has been licensed out to companies in India and South Africa, which will manufacture NEWgenerator units locally. This follows the successful completion of pilot programs in India and South Africa in 2016 and 2018-2020, respectively.

NEWgenerator CAB block

Creating a closed-loop system where water is scarce, the NEWgenerator can treat wastewater from portable toilets and recycle clean water back for toilet flushing, thereby enabling a more hygienic and convenient flush toilet experience for users. Previously, waste could only be stored in a tank or pit latrine.

Yeh said that the next step is to work with partners in other countries to optimize the technology in regions around the world by designing localized versions of the NEWgenerator systems per specific community requirements. The commercialization efforts also involve certifying the technology according to a newly-established international standard for non-sewered sanitation (ISO 30500). NASA has also taken an interest in the NEWgenerator’s potential as a compact wastewater recycling system, and modified NEWgenerator systems may one day provide clean water and food to astronauts on the Moon or Mars.

Patents for Humanity is the USPTO’s awards competition that recognizes innovators who use game-changing technology to meet global humanitarian challenges. This year’s virtual award ceremony is scheduled for September 17. Watch this year's award ceremony on USPTO's Facebook page.

Awards are given in five categories: Medicine, Sanitation, Nutrition, Energy, and Living Standards. NEWgenerator won under the sanitation category.

The program provides business incentives for innovators to improve the lives of those in need. Winners receive an acceleration certificate to expedite select proceedings at the USPTO, as well as public recognition of their work. The award showcases how patent holders with vision are pioneering innovative ways to provide affordable, scalable and sustainable solutions for the less fortunate.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has provided the majority of the funding for the NEWgenerator project as part of the Reinvented Toilet Challenge, which launched in 2011. In 2014 Yeh and his team of graduate students took home the prestigious Cade Museum Prize, which identifies Florida-based inventors and entrepreneurs that demonstrate a creative approach to problem solving within their field of expertise. Other funding came from the Government of India, the Reclaim at USF project (funded by an NSF PIRE grant) and the USEPA Center for Reinventing Aging Infrastructure for Nutrient Management (RAINmgt).

Patents for Humanity is a global competition open to any patent owners, patent applicants, or patent licensees. Submissions are evaluated on the effectiveness of their technology to address humanitarian issues, the contributions made by applicants to increase use of their technology among the impoverished, and the impact those contributions have made to improve lives.