Research aims to turn human waste into biofuel

Photo of Dr. Mark HoltappleA Texas A&M University research initiative that converts human wastes into biofuels has received a Phase 1 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The grant totals $100,000 with the opportunity for additional funding of up to $1 million.

The 18-month grant will help fund the biomass research program run by Mark Holtzapple, professor in the Artie McFerrin Department of Chemical Engineering at Texas A&M. The grant is one of only 110 awards selected from a pool of 2,075 submissions.

The objective of the research, Holtzapple says, is to demonstrate that carboxylic acid fermentation can be adapted as a sanitation treatment, providing health benefits through pathogen reduction, and economic benefits through robust conversion of waste to liquid fuels, nutrient-rich compost, and potable water.

Holtzapple, whose research group has run a pilot fermentation facility in Bryan/College Station for more than a decade, has previously demonstrated his biomass conversion process to work with paper waste and chicken manure, producing market-friendly energy products such as gasoline and jet fuel. Using that same process, Holtzapple intends to demonstrate how human excreta and municipal solid waste can be processed to biofuels, compost, and potable water in a manner suited to poor nations.

Many developing nations have seen great migrations from rural communities to large cities, Holtzapple explains. Often, the new city dwellers live in shanty towns that have no sewers or garbage collection. As a result, human wastes accumulate in the shanty towns and breed communicable diseases such as dysentery. This grant will help demonstrate technology that creates an economic incentive to collect these wastes, and hence reduce the spread of disease, he says.

Guided by the belief that every life has equal value, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation works to help all people lead healthy, productive lives. In developing countries, it focuses on improving people’s health and giving them the chance to lift themselves out of hunger and extreme poverty. In the United States, it seeks to ensure that all people – especially those with the fewest resources – have access to the opportunities they need to succeed in school and life. Based in Seattle, Washington, the foundation is led by CEO Jeff Raikes and Co-chair William H. Gates Sr., under the direction of Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett.

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