University of South Florida

College of Engineering

USF College of Engineering News

Waste To Water Technology Developed By College Of Engineering Researchers In Commercial Production

A solution to the problem of providing sanitation facilities to people living without them is now more readily available as technology developed at the University of South Florida College of Engineering enters the marketplace.

Researchers from USF’s Membrane Biotechnology Lab are now seeing production and deployment of their NEWgenerator portable, stand-alone sewage treatment technology they developed to sustainably treat human waste while yielding nutrients, energy, and water clean enough for uses such as flushing the toilets and irrigating crops.

A licensing agreement between USF and WEC Projects in South Africa signed in 2020 facilitated the transition of the NEWgenerator technology from a research project to a commercial product that benefits people.

A NEWgenerator unit has been operating in Durban, South Africa, since 2018. The commercialization of the technology means it is spreading to other locations, such as Slovoville, a community near Soweto. WEC officials say the NEW generator units improve lives by providing a basic necessity that is essential for health and comfort.

“We’re very proud to be part of this project, as we bring sanitation solutions right into our communities that have previously suffered and not had access to these amenities,” says Wayne Taljaard, WEC managing director.

Essentially, NEWgenerator units are off-grid toilets operating as a closed loop system that converts human waste into something useful.

Operating on the principle of decentralized sanitation, the technology is beneficial where small-scale water systems are appropriate, such as in rural communities in developing countries where there is limited to no infrastructure for treating wastewater.

The development of the NEWgenerator decentralized wastewater treatment technology is one of the most successful projects of the MBL. Besides researching ways to treat human waste sustainably, it also investigates the management of nutrients such as algae and advances knowledge of bioelectrochemical systems and infrastructure resilience. The lab’s work is directed by Professor Daniel Yeh of the college’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

According to Yeh, finding tangible value in waste material starts with thinking differently about it.

"You know it's not glamorous. It's in wastewater, right? But anywhere you see organic matter, there are electrons stored within that are just waiting for us to harvest, and we often don't because it's disgusting and we don't want to deal with it but it's a goldmine," he said during a TEDx USF presentation about his work.

The process developed by the MBL uses novel bioreactors and membrane filtration to capitalize on what naturally occurs with human waste and exemplifies what is possible with research at the nexus of water-energy-food.

Microorganisms break down waste material, filtering through microscopic membranes that trap bacteria and viruses. Chemical disinfection with chlorine follows, after which the recycled water is available for flushing or other suitable uses, such as irrigating crops. Besides treating wastewater to a sanitary level, the NEWgenerator units also capture fertilizing nutrients like ammonia and phosphate, as well as energy from methane gas generated in the process. They can be scaled in size to accommodate requirements of where they are located and how they will be used, ranging from individual units about the size of a portable toilet to more extensive public configurations in settings like schools.

Other types of locations that NEWgenerators might also be appropriate for dealing with waste treatment are places like refugee camps or areas affected by natural disasters such as hurricanes or floods that disable established wastewater infrastructure.

Improving access to food is another potential benefit of the units, as vegetable crops and other plants can be grown vertically on the structures, nourished hydroponically by nutrients that are recovered in the process.

WEC officials say the solar-powered units also provide jobs to monitor and maintain them. One entrepreneur involved in the installation of the NEWgenerator at Slovoville, near Soweto agrees.

“We learned so much from this project. I think from now I can compete with a lot of companies for the future,” says Richard Ngobeni of Big Boss construction company.

The NEWgenerator technology was prominently featured as a solution to a significant regional sanitation problem at the Water Institute of Southern Africa 2022 biennial conference in Sandton, South Africa. The institute advocates for global access to clean drinking water and responsible stewardship of natural resources while highlighting the effects of ongoing climate change on those issues.

Development of the NEWgenerator technology has been an ongoing effort by Yeh that began at the lab-scale about 20 years ago. The project received a boost in 2011 with a $100,000 Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Grand Challenges Explorations grant focused on developing innovative sanitation technology, with site testing in India and South Africa following. The Gates Foundation also awarded a $1.14 million grant to the project in 2017 through its Reinvented Toilet program that addresses infrastructure issues.

Yeh and his team are also adapting their membrane filtration technology for possible use by NASA astronauts for trips to the moon or the planet Mars where transporting and stockpiling adequate sanitation chemicals would be difficult.

Return to article listing

About Engineering News

News about engineering excellence by world class faculty, and outstanding students and alumni of the College of Engineering.