TAMPA — Typical wastewater treatment takes in flushed water, separates out the solids, cleans up the water and possibly produces biogas.
A device invented at the University of South Florida performs similar tasks — but rather than on the scale of a large city, the NEWgenerator from professor Daniel Yeh would serve a neighborhood, or a school.
A compact, off-the-grid wastewater system could help solve the sanitation crisis in many developing nations, a challenge affecting close to 2.6 billion people. And after landing a Gates Foundation Grand Challenges Explorations grant in 2011, the USF team this month earned a $50,000 Cade Museum Prize in Gainesville.
“What we’re trying to do is address many of these grand challenges that the world faces, such as sanitation. At least 40 percent of the world’s population does not have adequate sanitation,” said Yeh, a professor of civil and environmental engineering.
“In many places around the world, you can’t build a sewer network, you can’t build a wastewater treatment plant. In fact, to convey the waste, you need water. What if you don’t have water available? What if you collect water in buckets? The whole infrastructure, the whole model needs to be done differently,” he said.
Yeh and his core team of four graduate researchers are designing a NEWgenerator with a footprint of just 40 square feet, roughly an 8-by-5-foot box. It will be installed this fall in southern India, where it will serve 100 people a day.
Humming along in a lab at USF’s Engineering III building is a prototype successfully processing a few gallons a day.
“For the most part, centralized wastewater treatment has worked very well in this country,” Yeh said. “They do a great job turning dirty water into clean water, but it comes at a great cost.”
Using state-of-the-art anaerobic membrane bioreactor technology involving ultrafiltration membranes, nanotechnology and biotechnology, the NEWgenerator takes in domestic wastewater, separates solids into disinfected and stabilized fertilizer for soil conditioning, removes pathogens and cleans water to be used for irrigation, then produces methane for energy.
Nothing is discharged; every element is prepared for reuse.
Unlike massive city treatment plants, which guzzle electricity, Yeh’s device is a net energy producer: It generates more energy than it consumes.
The professor called developing the device a “labor of love,” and graduate assistant Onur Ozcan acknowledged many late nights in the lab.
“The world needs its sanitation problem solved, and our technology is one of the better candidates that has the potential to achieve that,” said Ozcan, a candidate for a doctorate in environmental engineering. “We like spending time with this technology. It’s more than just getting this degree or that degree and publishing papers for us. We have good team cohesion, we’re all friends, and with that we have an additional layer of motivation.”
The USF team beat out 84 other teams of inventors to win the Cade prize, backed by the Community Foundation of North Central Florida. On top of the cash, the team gets $10,000 in legal services.
Yeh said the prize would help the team form a startup company around the product and begin to commercialize it.
“Dr. Yeh epitomizes exactly what we’re trying to do here at USF,” said Paul Sanberg, senior vice president for research and innovation at the university. “We still want to do basic research; we still want to do social research; we still want to do all the things that a great university does. But we also want to help Tampa Bay and Florida in terms of the economy and creating jobs.”
USF has created an office of technology transfer, and staffers work with faculty and even students on protecting their intellectual property.
Yeh already has applied for two patents on the NEWgenerator technology and expects to file for two more.
He said it is “the ultimate dream, the ultimate goal” to have his research someday improve global health.
“Every 15 seconds, a child dies from diarrhea- related illnesses,” Yeh said. “Those should be preventable. It all starts with good sanitation.”