Kumasi launches faecal-sludge-to-biodiesel fuel plant

Public toilets

To commemorate World Toilet Day today, November 19, 2012 and also help solve an age-old problem of the proper disposal of  faecal sludge, a multi-national team will today launch a groundbreaking research facility that transforms human waste into renewable biodiesel fuel in Kumasi, the Ashanti Regional capital of Ghana.

A joint effort by researchers at Columbia University’s Engineering School working in Ghana with Waste Enterprisers Ltd., the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), and the Kumasi Metropolitan Assembly, the pilot facility is expected to produce renewable, cost-effective and sustainable energy.

Currently, the team is scaling up its research efforts initiated in the Columbia University Engineering Lab, and expects the facility to become a revolutionary new model in sanitation, especially across the developing world.

According to the team of researchers, today’s launch of the pilot phase is a major milestone in the pioneering project, which is now entering its second year.

Funded through a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the project is led by Kartik Chandran, an associate professor of Earth and Environmental Engineering at Columbia University’s school of engineering and applied science and Ashley Murray, Founder and CEO of Waste Enterprisers Ltd, a Ghanaian company that is working to reinvent the economics of sanitation in the developing world.

As part of the project, Chandran is developing an innovative technology to transform faecal sludge into biodiesel fuel and is working on converting a waste-processing facility into a bio refinery.

Commenting on the facility, Chandran said, “This is a very exciting project for us. We are aiming to create a next-generation urban sanitation facility that will set new standards and serve as a model around the world.”

He added that “With the capacity to receive and treat 10,000 liters, or 2500 gallons ( a full sanitation truck carrying concentrated faecal matter from at least 5,000 people) of faecal sludge per day, this facility reaches way beyond the lab scale.”

Meanwhile, in the pilot phase, expected to last 12 months, the researchers will be testing Chandran’s bioprocess technology for converting the organic compounds present in faecal sludge to biodiesel and methane, two potent sources of renewable energy.

Touching on the motivation for the project, Murray said; “Our goal is to develop a revenue-generating faecal-sludge-to-biodiesel facility that can transform sanitation from an expensive burden into a profitable venture.”

“If we figure out a way to make waste management profitable, governments and citizens that currently bear the financial, environmental, and public health costs will all be better off,” he  stated.

Chandran and Murray are working closely with several of the associate professor’s students at KNUST along with a team of process engineers, to improve the biodiesel yield from faecal sludge and explore the commercial viability of a business model based on creating biodiesel from human waste.

Speaking on this aspect, Murray opines; “This project is about more than a technology breakthrough, it’s about creating economically sustainable approaches to waste management that can eliminate the sanitation crisis in developing cities.”

Expressing their gratefulness to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for their recognition of the critical importance of sustainable sanitation across the globe, especially in developing countries, Chandran adds; “We hope our model can be replicated and adapted around the world.”

For his part, Anthony Mensah, Waste Management Director for the city of Kumasi believes “The faecal sludge to biodiesel pilot project could potentially address sustainable sanitation and introduce a new dimension into the sanitation value chain, not only in Kumasi but globally,” saying “The Kumasi Metropolitan Assembly is therefore delighted to be part of this novel partnership.”

By Edmund Smith-Asante

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